It’s Carl Sagan’s birthday today, November 9th. He’d have been 77. Today is a day to rejoice in the legacy he left behind, and maybe to lament his absence just a little too. Like so many other people he’s affected, I have a profound admiration for Carl. It’s hard to pin it down to one reason why, or even a small handful of reasons.
Today in the news I read that the amusingly-named Russian “Phobos-Grunt” probe (ok, grunt is the Russian word for “dirt”) has apparently stalled in Earth orbit after launch. The probe was supposed to travel to Mars’ Phobos moon and return to Earth with samples of the soil. Roscosmos has a downright dismal failure rate of attempting to send probes to Mars. To the tune of 19 missions with partial sucess at best but mostly outright failures. The record was so lousy that they gave up for the last 15 years. So it’s some combination of ironic and sad that this one should fail too. The engineers still have a chance to get things back on track. We’ll see. But something that sort of sticks out in my mind is that while Russia is the traditional US rival, really we all lose when any attempt at space exploration fails. I think Carl was a big pusher of that kind of thinking. The idea that exploring space is all about expanding the boundaries of human civilization as a whole, about the survival of our species, and about the next leap in our evolution–from sea creatures, to land dwellers, to explorers of other worlds. From that point of view, to think of humanity as a contest of nations seems petty, narrow-minded, backwards. Feudal.
Another sweet piece of news this week was that the team at JPL has instructed the Voyager 2 probe to switch over to secondary thrusters. The spacecraft radioed back that it had done so successfully. It’s 9 billion miles away and it took 4 days for the command-acknowledgement signal round trip. That’s amazing. The Voyagers have been rocking for 34 years now, older than I am, and still running. What a triumph for all those who worked on the probes; and also for every human. We have probes that have almost made it to interstellar space. Seriously, that’s a milestone for a lifeform. And they both carry a hello message from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. It’s perfect.
Maybe if I wasn’t preoccupied with many other things this evening I’d try to make an apple pie from scratch as a tribute. Tonight I need to start packing for Bear Creek music fest, but there will probably be time to sneak in an episode of Cosmos and enjoy some time with Carl, one of the best humans of our times.