The Sciences

Carl Sagan and the Cosmos: How His Contributions Changed Space Science

Carl Sagan exploded onto the space scene, leaving a lasting legacy. Explore his contributions to the cosmos and how his life’s work continues to inspire future generations.

By Cody CottierNov 9, 2023 8:00 AM
Carl Sagan with Viking lander model in Death Valley California
Carl Sagan poses with a model of the Viking lander in Death Valley, California. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Public Domain)


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Before his death in 1996, Carl Sagan was likely the most famous living scientist.

A pioneer in space exploration and in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, he spent his life probing ideas that aroused the public imagination. His ability to communicate complex scientific ideas to the general public made him a household name. Having such an impact on science, there’s much to learn about his legacy. 

Who Is Carl Sagan?

Carl Sagan was a multifaceted American scientist known for his work in astronomy, cosmology, astrophysics, astrobiology, and for his immense contribution to the popularization of science. It’s no surprise that Sagan’s greatest feats occurred not in secluded laboratories, but on the bright, world-wide stage of late-night talk shows, award-winning books and TV programs viewed by hundreds of millions.

Carl Sagan’s Public Impact: Bridging Science and Society

His scholarly accomplishments — more than 600 scientific papers and 22 honorary degrees — are nothing to scoff at.

But perhaps more importantly, he served as a bridge between science and ordinary people, sparking curiosity about alien life, the past and future of life on Earth, and the myriad marvels of the universe.

Read More: 4 Things We Have Thanks To Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan and the Cosmos

In Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, a colleague of the astronomer is said to have remarked that Sagan “desperately wants to find life someplace, anyplace — on Mars, on Titan, in the solar system or outside of it. In all the divergent things he does, that is the unifying thread.”

The Search for Life Beyond Earth

Beginning in the early 1960s, Sagan demonstrated that crucial organic molecules like adenosine triphosphate (cellular energy currency) and amino acids (the building blocks of life) can form when basic chemicals are exposed to ultraviolet radiation. His findings hinted at a plausible starting point for ancestral Earthlings. 

Around the same time, he began investigating the atmospheric conditions of other planets.

He correctly predicted that Venus’ high temperatures are the result of greenhouse gases, that Titan’s red haze comes from organic molecules, and that the changing color of Mars’ surface is due to shifts in windblown dust. All three hypotheses were confirmed by later exploration.

Read More: Tools to Understand the Cosmos Are Right Under Our Feet

Sagan At NASA

Carl Sagan's tenure at NASA was marked by significant contributions to the agency, serving as both an advisor and visionary messenger.

Sagan's Invaluable Contributions to Space

Sagan had a hand in many of NASA’s major projects, from the agency’s inception in 1958 onward — even briefing the Apollo astronauts before their moon mission. 

Additionally, he crafted the first messages sent into space, including the Voyager Golden Record launched in 1977. “Sagan’s influence on the space program’s planning and funding was unequaled,” writes the biographer William Poundstone in Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos.

The Pale Blue Dot Legacy

Another of Sagan’s masterstrokes? The “pale blue dot” image, taken at his insistence by Voyager 1 as it hurtled toward interstellar space. The photograph showed our planet — as an all but invisible speck against an endless cosmic backdrop — from a radically new vantage point.

“With that picture,” writes physicist Freeman Dyson, “Carl made clear to all mankind the smallness of the squabbles that currently divide us and the greatness of the destiny that may one day unite us.”

Read More: Are We Entering a New Era of Space Archeology?

Protecting Our Planet

The pale blue dot revealed not only our interconnectedness but also our fragility; seen from 3.7 billion miles away, its inhabitants didn’t seem so invincible. 

A Voice for Environmental Consciousness

Sagan was keenly aware of the growing environmental dangers posed by human activity, and the burning of fossil fuels in particular. 

An early believer in global warming, he testified to Congress in 1985 that the same greenhouse effect he’d observed on Venus could catastrophically transform our own planet’s climate.

Advocacy for Peace in the Nuclear Age

Of equal concern, especially in the Cold War years, was the threat of nuclear devastation.

In the early 1980s, Sagan co-authored a series of articles investigating how large-scale bombing would likely produce a “nuclear winter” — prolonged climatic cooling that could render Earth uninhabitable. Entering one of the most controversial political debates of the period, he became a prominent advocate for arms control.

Science journalist Keay Davidson argues in Carl Sagan: A Life that, as a rare and unabashed multidisciplinarian, Sagan was uniquely equipped among scientists to exercise this kind of moral judgment.

“People who are afraid of transgressing intellectual boundaries,” he writes, “are less likely to see the forest as well as the trees and, hence, to challenge societal misuses of science.”

Read More: We Can See Disparities in Air Quality From Space

Carl Sagan’s Impact on the Next Generation

The legacy of Carl Sagan's influence extends beyond academia into the realm of popular science communication, as demonstrated by the experiences of Bill Nye.

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) took Sagan’s astronomy class at Cornell University, and in the late ‘80s even sought the phenom’s advice on creating a science show for kids.

Inspiring Future Scientists

A decade before that, Sagan tried to recruit 17-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson to the university, inviting him to spend a Saturday in Ithaca, New York. Although he enrolled elsewhere, Tyson went on to revive Sagan’s popular television series with his own 2014 release of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Read More: Is Bill Nye the Science Guy Really a Scientist?

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Carl Sagan

Neil deGrasse Tyson's pivotal encounter with Carl Sagan not only cemented his desire to pursue science, but also shaped his perspective on the kind of individual he aspired to be. At the end of the first episode, Tyson recalls that early meeting with Sagan: "I already knew I wanted to become a scientist,” he says. “But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become."

In physicist Freeman Dyson’s opinion, Sagan was a sort of scientific democratizer — making the obscure accessible for all.

“He saw the cosmic connection as an enlargement of the human spirit,” Dyson writes. “He wanted everyone on Earth, not only the scientific elite, to feel connected with the cosmos.”

Read More: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson On His Life Influences and 'Starry Messenger'

What Is Carl Sagan Most Famous For?

Outside academic circles, Sagan is most famous for promoting science to the non-specialist world. Among his many best-selling books, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Dragons of Eden.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage to Enlightenment

And his 1980 TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was American public television’s most-watched show of the decade. Across 13 episodes, he explored everything from the birth of galaxies to the nature of intelligence — explaining esoteric ideas in the simple, lucid manner of a gifted teacher.

Read More: The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time

Carl Sagan’s Legacy

Sagan drew countless admirers — students, colleagues and viewers — for his charisma, prodigious intellect and descriptions of a universe shimmering with wonders. But, like most pivotal figures, he drew detractors, too.

“Critics had accused science of robbing the cosmos of old enchantments — gods, angels, astrological forces,” Davidson writes. “But Sagan re-enchanted the stars in new, scientific-sounding ways purged of medieval irrationalisms.”

What’s more, he mentored and inspired a generation of prominent scientists, including some who took up the mantle of translating technical information for a lay audience.

Challenging the Status Quo

More cautious peers often regarded his speculations as flippant, if not outright reckless. In an academic culture that expects its members to stick to well-defined lanes, Sagan’s free-ranging mind was sometimes seen as an affront.

The Sagan Effect

His undergraduate advisor, the chemist and Nobel laureate Harold Urey, for example, urged Harvard to deny Sagan tenure due to “doubts about his sense of scientific responsibility,” as Davidson puts it in Carl Sagan: A Life.

In fact, there’s now a term for backlash against a scientist who spends too much time commenting to the media on subjects outside their narrow expertise: the Sagan effect.

Read More: Beyond Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Conversation with Ann Druyan

Famous Carl Sagan Quotes

Carl Sagan was an eminent astronomer, cosmologist, author, and science communicator, well-known for his ability to capture the imagination with his words. Here are some of his most memorable quotes:

  • "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

  • "The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself."

  • "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere."

  • "Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality."

  • "We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

  • "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff."

  • "We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever."

  • "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

  • "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love."

  • "There are billions and billions of stars in the universe."

The last quote, often associated with Sagan due to his frequent use of the word "billions" in his book and television series "Cosmos," has become emblematic of his ability to convey the vast scale of the universe in a relatable way, though he never used the phrase "billions and billions." His eloquence and clear communication have inspired generations to look up at the stars and contemplate our place in the cosmos.

Read More: Meet 9 of the Many Scientists Who Helped Create the James Webb Space Telescope

This article was originally published on June 12, 2023 and has since been updated by the Discover staff with new information.

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