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Jack Zaleski, Published April 05 2014

Zaleski: Carl Sagan: ‘We are made of starstuff’

I am among a minority of Americans who believe the nation should restore space exploration to a priority. After the scientific and engineering triumph of the 1969 lunar landing and subsequent trips to the moon, NASA’s manned space program began a slow slide from the national consciousness. Congress abetted the decline by nickel-and-diming the agency’s funding.

Insult to injury: Parochial ideologues won the argument that the private sector can do it. The result thus far: Companies (often subsidized by Uncle Sam) hawk expensive seats for rich people on near-Earth space flights. It’s morphed into for-profit carnival rides instead of a focused national mandate to return to the moon and move on to nearby planets.

In the late 1950s, Walt Disney produced a series of television shows about manned space flight. Hosted by ex-Nazi Werner Von Braun, they were ground-breaking productions that captivated a generation. Von Braun was the brilliant mind behind the U.S. moon program, and he also became the first genuine scientist TV star. Inspired by him and the emerging space program, thousands of young people signed up for space science and engineering studies.

Jump to 1980. The late Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” took its place as a milestone for TV scientific documentaries. Much like Von Braun a generation earlier, Sagan was a star, not only for “Cosmos” but also for his television appearances (“The Tonight Show” among them) where his credibility and personality put space science in prime time.

I loved “Cosmos” for its science-informed speculation and for its haunting, soaring music score. I have an old vinyl 33 rpm album stored somewhere.

The new version of Sagan’s vision premiered last month. “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who as a student was inspired by Sagan. The new “Cosmos” is a well-done follow to the original. Brought to television by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, it features spectacular animation and graphics, and 30 more years of new science.

Like Sagan, Tyson is scientist and television star. His admiration for Sagan comes through in every chapter of the new “Cosmos.” Tyson hearkens back to Sagan’s vision, then brings it into the 21st century with marvelous visuals and new cosmology.

The program is doing well in the ratings. Maybe it will, like the 1950s Disney shows and the 1980 “Cosmos,” inspire a generation to go for the stars.

Sagan said it best in his “Cosmos:” “We are made of starstuff.” Let’s get back out there and learn more about who we are.


Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.