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2001’s odysseys on a pale blue dot

The Year in Space, 2001: The widow of Carl Sagan and the keeper of the "Cosmos" flame, Ann Druyan, looks back and looks ahead.

Dec. 20, 2001 — With the aid of modern technology, terrorists are turning religious convictions into commandments of death. “Star Wars” is back, and NASA is in transition — all in the midst of a revolution in our understanding of the universe. The way Ann Druyan sees it, the times cry out for a voice like that of her late husband, the activist astronomer Carl Sagan. Five years after his death, she says, people around the world are asking her: “What would Carl say?”

Sagan's scientific authority stemmed from his role in a spectrum of space missions spanning Apollo, Mariner, Voyager, Viking and Galileo. But he stood out from the scientific crowd because of his willingness to take on big subjects:

  • His studies of Venusian climate buttressed theories about the greenhouse effect on Earth, as well as conjecture about the catastrophic “nuclear winter” that would follow a superpower doomsday.
  • He was a rigorous skeptic on the subject of UFOs, yet helped lay the groundwork for the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence — a pursuit embodied in his best-selling novel “Contact.”
  • He didn’t believe in God or the afterlife, and yet spirituality permeated his writings and speeches right up to the end, on Dec. 20, 1996, when he died of pneumonia after a long struggle with bone marrow disease.

Since then, the scientist has been memorialized by an asteroid (2709 Sagan), a couple of spots on Mars (Sagan Memorial Station and Sagan Crater) and a NASA center.

Druyan, who collaborated with Sagan on projects such as the “Cosmos” television series, says students and fans from Ecuador to China have been planning memorials to mark Thursday’s fifth anniversary of her husband’s death.

“These are young people who are just longing to hear a voice like Carl’s,” she told from her office in Ithaca, N.Y., where Sagan once taught. “It’s really surprising to me that there isn’t a global voice speaking on behalf of science, as Carl did.”

Druyan said she could never speak for her late husband, but she’s sure Sagan would have plenty to say about the anti-scientific, anti-life regime of al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“If you were trying to find a polar antithesis to what Carl was, you’d probably find them in the ranks of the Taliban,” she said.

Druyan had tough words for the Bush administration as well, for “breaking our promises” on the ABM Treaty and ramping up its tests for a missile defense system — an endeavor Sagan opposed during the Reagan-Bush years.

She was also tough on the Bush administration’s nominee to take the reins at NASA, budget official Sean O’Keefe. Druyan is among those who worry that O’Keefe will preside over the downsizing of NASA’s dreams.

“How sad I am that the designee is apparently someone who has no passion for exploration,” she said.

Looking ahead
Passion is something Druyan has plenty of — for her myriad television projects, including next year’s scheduled return of the full “Cosmos” series to television, and for a $4 million project to launch the world’s first working solar sail. Such sails could someday use the pressure of photons from the sun or from lasers to drive vessels through space like ships through the sea.

“Solar sailing is potentially a way to travel 10 times faster than even the Voyager spacecraft,” Druyan said. “I feel like I’m outfitting the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop.”

An initial suborbital test went awry in July, due to a rocket glitch, but Druyan and the other partners in the project are going ahead with an even more ambitious orbital flight next spring. If the Cosmos 1 sail works as planned, it could flash brighter than a crescent moon.

Druyan hopes such projects will “do something that would light everybody up,” in a world darkened by hijackings and bioterror scares.

“Why bother to become a scientist or an engineer or a mathematician if it’s all about anthrax?” she said. “There’s an exploratory vacuum that we want to fill.”

And then there’s the vacuum still left by Sagan’s passing five years ago.

“I’m not doing things to please Carl,” Druyan said, “because I don’t believe Carl is in any state to know what I’m doing. But I want to do the kinds of things that he would be proud of and to keep the inspirational flame alive.”

Your turn
The fate of Cosmos 1 and other private space efforts, the implications of the war against terrorism, the transition at NASA and the missile defense debate are all trends worth watching over the next year.

For the fifth year in a row, you and other users get to rate the past year’s top story in news of the universe — and the top trend for the year ahead.

Just to refresh your memory, the top story of 2000 was the long-delayed habitation of the international space station, and the most anticipated trend for 2001 was NASA’s Mars Odyssey mission.