Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tribute to Carl Sagan and The Planetary Society

I recently had occasion [read: I really need the space] to clean out one of my closets whose contents hadn’t seen the light of day in years. In addition to a lot of printed material I had held on to only because “google” hadn’t evolved into a verb yet, I realized that, over the years, I had kept two things: Anything Star Trek and anything by or about Carl Sagan, including an issue of “The Planetary Report” from 1993 and the first English-language book I ever read, 20 years earlier: “The Cosmic Connection – An Extra-Terrestrial Perspective”. I was 11 at the time in West Germany, with two years of English under my belt.

Contemplating my collection of Carl Sagan’s writings, I realized that no other scientist or author has had the same overarching impact on my life and career choices as Carl Sagan did. For this I am most grateful, because it has led me to where I am today.

Carl’s great gift was his ability to reach so many people – to show the wonders of the cosmos to anyone who wanted to learn, listen, watch and imagine. He certainly reached an 11-year-old girl who had caught the space bug only a few years earlier. I don’t remember where my copy of “Cosmic Connection” came from in 1973. I probably saw a German translation in a bookstore and asked my parents for the original (my love of the English language and U.S. culture runs deep). It took me months to finish the book, looking up many words per page in a paper dictionary, puzzling out the meaning of Carl’s words as I went along.

At some point, it stopped being tedious and started to feel like an adventure – a glorious, wonderful journey into realms whose existence I was just learning to comprehend. Carl took complicated topics and presented them in accessible, engaging ways. He also tapped into that which is universal, that which we all share as a species, as a planet, a solar system, a galaxy. That which transcends languages, cultures and national boundaries, that which makes us uniquely human and defines our role in the cosmos. We are star stuff; we are life figuring itself out, at the most exciting time in human history!

Carl’s words not only resonated with me as a child, they helped me develop intellectual confidence and the courage to speak up when adults around me misrepresented science or denied scientific achievements. I eagerly anticipated Carl’s latest books and interviews. Soon, I began to challenge moon landing deniers, creationists, Sunday school teachers and geo-centrists. I found my way towards atheism at age 14 and passionately defended it to anyone who challenged me.

I became conscious of the signs of the Cold War raging in full view all around me, ignored, unspoken of, discussed only in hushed tones. I was furious when I figured out that the divided Germanies were being served up as a possible Ground Zero in a nuclear confrontation scenario between the superpowers. When I first saw a procession of ICBMs being transported on a West German highway at age 13 and began to question everybody I could think of, Carl was one of the few people in a position of authority who confirmed my perceptions were true and who echoed what I thought: Insanity!

Years later, in graduate school at UCLA, I would turn down a job offer from a major defense contractor who wanted to hire me as a human factors engineer. Financially, this was difficult for me. Yet I just could not go to work for a company that was devoted to everything I opposed in the 1980's: Nuclear proliferation, the Cold War and the Strategic Defense Initiative. I don’t think I could have made this decision as cleanly as I did without Carl’s words, wisdom and dire warnings in my mind.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Los Angeles, I attended every possible event featuring Carl Sagan and The Planetary Society. I became a first-time Society member in 1993. For the second time in my career, I started to dream about a space-related job. With the Cold War over, the terrible specter of mutually assured destruction was fading into the background. I became hopeful that under Carl’s leadership, humans could now focus on space exploration without the distraction of chilling Cold War geopolitics.

Carl’s passing in 1996 was a terrible loss: To his family, to The Planetary Society, to me, to everyone who looked to the stars and dared to dream. I started to doubt my optimistic assessment of our human future in space. When Columbia was lost in 2003, it was as if I had no more tears left to shed. Professionally, I threw myself into a career as a translator and linguist.

It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I would leave a prestigious employment situation to work full-time in space outreach, my First Love - this time for good. Twitter, NASA Tweetups and NASA Socials had a lot to do with my decision, but so did my personal experience with a reinvigorated Planetary Society and Bill Nye in the most visible position as its CEO. Planet Fest 2012 showed me that I had, in fact, come full circle. Carl’s loss had not weakened The Planetary Society, it had made it stronger! Now, 40 years after picking up my first book by Carl Sagan that forever shaped my understanding of the cosmos, I find myself applying for a position with The Planetary Society that would give me an opportunity to do something extraordinary: Follow in Carl’s footsteps, carry on his legacy and show people just how amazing and rewarding it is to Change The Worlds!

How cool is that?