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Carl Sagan, Voyager and Exploring the Vastness of Space

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Voyager: A Message in a Bottle

Carl Sagan was well known among the masses in the 1970s and 80s, his eloquence on television and the printed page proved irresistible, drawing many young Americans to follow scientific careers. Sagan has been described as the scientist who made the Universe clearer to the ordinary person. He would be considered today a social influencer, possible one of the greatest.

Sagan helped assemble the first physical messages sent into space, the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record. Its universal messages could one day be understood by extraterrestrial intelligence as Voyager 1 takes its Grand Tour through our Solar System and now into interstellar space. Voyager 1 is the human race's message in a bottle as it challenges the immeasurable distances in our universe seeing where the eddies and currents of the cosmic ocean will take it.

As a scientist, Sagan speculated freely, sometimes wildly, and outraged his more cautious colleagues. A few regarded him as a charlatan. Even some of his closest mentors, notably Gerard Kuiper and Harold Urey, had serious doubts about his sense of scientific responsibility. He wanted badly to believe in such outrageous things, such as flying saucers, Martians, and distant civilizations across our Milky Way.

Sagan became well known for his summary of the entire evolution of species, starting from the Big Bang to the beginning of human civilization with the help of a "Cosmic Calendar" an analogy in which every year of the calendar corresponds to the time since the Big Bang. Sagan used the same analogy in the more-widely known television series Cosmos.

Regardless, Sagan helped to pioneer much of modern science, mainly the subject of planetary atmosphere. He also raised a crop of graduate students, who now launch robotic explorers to the planets which began with the Voyager missions. Voyager 1 launched by NASA on September 5,1977, was sent on its mission to study the outer Solar system and interstellar space beyond the Sun's heliosphere.

At a distance of over 155.8 AU from Earth and cruising approximately at 38,000 miles per hour, it is the most distant artificial object from Earth. The Voyager spacecraft drifts through the darkness like a message in a bottle in the boundless ocean we call space.

Sagan's Thoughts on Mankind's Future

  • "I believe our future depends, powerfully, on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky. We're about to begin a journey through the Cosmos ... it's a story about us ... how the Cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture, and what our fate may be."
  • "Billions of years from now our Sun, then a distended red giant, will have reduced earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will still be largely intact, in some other remote region of the Milky Way galaxy, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished—perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds—on the distant planet Earth."

Sagan on the Cosmos

Road to Interstellar Space

On September 5, 1977, NASA took advantage of a rare celestial alignment of the planets, a once-every-176-year occurrence that provided an opportunity to send a single spacecraft past all four giant planets in our outer solar system. By using the gravity of one planet to slingshot Voyager on a path to the next, bouncing it from one remarkable world to another, and then completely out of our solar system to interstellar space.

The Voyager missions gave all of us our first detailed views of the solar system beyond Mars, revealing the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. They also opened up the splendor of these giant planet's rings and moons giving the masses their first view of these mysterious hidden secrets of our solar system.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is currently over 14 billion miles from Earth. Some noted scientists have feared, respectfully, that aliens might be hostile, or that the discovery would damage human self-confidence. They ask the question, "Why advertise our position in the galaxy?"

Sagan replied it was too late to stop the human imprint. The die has been cast since we have been inadvertently sending television and radio signals into space since about 1900. Traveling at the speed of light it is only a question of time, possibly in more than a century, that this massive electromagnetic cloud could reach another civilization and lead them back to Earth.

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American's Mr. Rogers of Science

On November 30, 1973, a year shy of his 40th birthday, Sagan won his first mass audience by appearing on the Johny Carson show. To some, Sagan's appearance on the Carson shows forever marked him as a fallen angel. He was no longer considered a scholar. he had sold out to become a celebrity. Carson was an amateur astronomer with a deep interest in science, and he was respectful of intellectuals and activists. After appearing on Carson's Tonight Show, Sagan became America's best-known scientists.

The celebrity machine went into overdrive after Sagan's appearances on the Tonight Show. Carson invited Sagan back for the January 9, 1974, show. Millions of Americans got their first glimpses of other worlds from the detailed images Sagan presented on his late-night appearances on Carson's show. Over the next thirteen years, appeared on the Carson show at least twice a year. He expressed it gave him the opportunity to reach the largest classroom in America.

Sagan and Carson combined to produce a two-man conspiracy of the celestially minded. They drew the attention of millions of amateur astronomers, as both were determined to get the public as excited about the nighttime sky as they were. Sagan put to use analogies so clear and persuasive that the complicated art of astronomy suddenly became clear to the average American, and made viewers gasp as they recognized new truths about our universe.

Sagan's fame brought him great wealth. In early 1984, he received a $2 million advance from Simon & Schuster to write the science fiction novel "Contact". The novel was Sagan's most intense effort to defend the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In the novel Sagan grapples with issues close to his heart sexism, militarism, and religion versus reason.

One of Carl Sagan's greatest concerns is the existence of nuclear weapons. Since his childhood Sagan pondered humanity's potential for destroying itself. Some consider the age of nuclear weapons as a technological bottleneck through which humanity has to pass. If it survived, then humanity might endure for millions of years, exploring the galaxy, possibly even encountering alien beings face to face.

In the book The Dragons of Eden (1977), Sagan discussed for the first time at any length what he regarded as the dark side of human nature, the hypothetical reptilian complex within the brain. Sagan believed it is the oldest part of our psyches, though its primal passions are ideal for survival in an untamed wilderness, it is not good for survival in a world of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.

The title The Dragons of Eden is derived from the theory that man's early struggle for survival in the face of predators, and in particular a fear of reptiles, may have led to cultural beliefs and myths about dragons. The book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1978.

This is the front cover art for the book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence written by Carl Sagan. Sagan won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1977 publication The Dragons of Eden.

This is the front cover art for the book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence written by Carl Sagan. Sagan won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1977 publication The Dragons of Eden.

Carl Sagan on the Tonight Show

Carl Sagan, Stephan Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke on God, The Universe and Everything Else (1988)


Davidson, Keay. Carl Sagan John Wiley & Sons Inc. 605 Third Avenue New York NY 10158-0012. 1999

Evans, Ben. NASA's Voyager Missions: Exploring the Outer Solar Systems and Beyond. Praxis Publishing Chichester UK. 2004

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mark Caruthers

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