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Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan was a brilliant scientist, contributor to great endeavors of humanity in our voyage to what we call the outer space, the exotic worlds that no one of us has ever stepped on, no one of us has ever been born in. However, Carl Sagan, in addition to his scientific mind, his excellent, groundbreaking scientific communication skills, was a great writer. One of his masterpieces is this book, presented here, the “Pale Blue Dot”.

The concept of this work is similar to the Opus Magnum of the writer, “Cosmos”. In that one, thousands of years of human exploration in the oceans of knowledge are presented and discussed, accompanied with brilliant ideas about our society, our civilization, our species and our planet as a whole, depending on how we, terrestrials, are going to use this knowledge. In “Pale Blue Dot” the same approach is adopted, however focused on the space exploration, which lasts only a few decades in our species lifetime, quite fewer back in 1994, when this book was written.

VOYAGERS, PIONEERS AND A PALE BLUE DOT

The book starts with probably the most famous quote of the author, the so-named “Pale Blue Dot” text, which was inspired by the distant image of the Earth, while Voyager passed Neptune in order to explore the waters of the cosmic ocean. Enjoy…

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, ever king and peasant, every young couple in love, every moth and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self“-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

After this great introduction on our position in the “cosmic arena”, Carl Sagan performs a thorough review of almost all the major space missions that have been accomplished until the writing of his book. He presents in detail the great idea of sending our message to the interstellar ocean of our galaxy by exploring these uncharted waters with Voyagers.

APOLLO AND THE PLANETS OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM

In an attempt to provide arguments for the usefulness of planetary exploration, except for stepping on other worlds and even settling there, he provides a wide review of all the missions in other planets and planetary bodies, with the benefits that were obtained for life on Earth, thanks to the scientific findings by the analysis of the extraterrestrial data. However, he doesn’t forget to note that in our societies, as we know them until our era, the motive which made these scientific accomplishments turn into reality was not at all scientific. Maybe this is a great message to our time, when planetary exploration, with crewed missions to the Moon and probably Mars will happen soon, in a new round of a space race between the superpowers of our planet.

Carl Sagan’s words about Apollo reveal all the truth about the political decisions which let the greatest mission, yet, to happen. Listen to him: 

“The scope and audacity of John Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 message to a joint session of Congress on “Urgent National Needs”—the speech that launched the Apollo program—dazzled me. We would use rockets not yet designed and alloys not yet conceived, navigation and docking schemes not yet devised, in order to send a man to an unknown world—a world not yet explored, not even in a preliminary way, not even by robots—and we would bring him safely back, and we would do it before the decade was over. This confident pronouncement was made before any American had even achieved Earth orbit.

As a newly minted Ph.D., I actually thought all this had something centrally to do with science. But the President did not talk about discovering the origin of the Moon, or even about bringing samples of it back for study. All he seemed to be interested in was sending someone there and bringing him home. It was a kind of gesture. Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, later told me he had made a deal with the President: If Kennedy would not claim that Apollo was about science, then he. Wiesner, would support it. So if not science, what?

The Apollo program is really about politics, others told me. This sounded more promising. Nonaligned nations would be tempted to drift toward the Soviet Union if it was ahead in space exploration, if the United States showed insufficient “national vigor.” I didn’t follow. Here was the United States, ahead of the Soviet Union in virtually every area of technology—the world’s economic, military, and, on occasion, even moral leader—and Indonesia would go Communist because Yuri Gagarin beat John Glenn to Earth orbit? What’s so special about space technology? Suddenly I understood.

Sending people to orbit the Earth or robots to orbit the Sun requires rockets—big, reliable, powerful rockets. Those same rockets can be used for nuclear war. The same technology that transports a man to the Moon can carry nuclear warheads halfway around the world. The same technology that puts an astronomer and a telescope in Earth orbit can also put up a laser “battle station.” Even back then, there was fanciful talk in military circles, East and West, about space as the new “high ground,” about the nation that “controlled” space “controlling” the Earth. Of course strategic rockets were already being tested on Earth. But heaving a ballistic missile with a dummy warhead into a target zone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean doesn’t buy much glory. Sending people into space captures the attention and Imagination of the world.

You wouldn’t spend the money to launch astronauts for this reason alone, but of all the ways of demonstrating rocket potency, this one works best. It was a rite of national manhood; the shape of the boosters made this point readily understood without anyone actually having to explain it. The communication seemed to be transmitted from unconscious mind to unconscious mind without the higher mental faculties catching a whiff of what was going on. 

[…]

When President Kennedy formulated the Apollo program, the Defense Department had a slew of space projects under development—ways of carrying military personnel up into space, means of conveying them around the Earth, robot weapons on orbiting platforms intended to shoot down satellites and ballistic missiles of other nations. Apollo supplanted these programs. They never reached operational status. A case can be made then that Apollo served another purpose—to move the U.S.—Soviet space competition from a military to a civilian arena. There are some who believe that Kennedy intended Apollo as a substitute for an anus race in space. Maybe.

For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the Moon. It reads: “We came in peace for all mankind.” As the United States was dropping 7½ megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity: We would harm no one on a lifeless rock. That plaque is there still, attached to the base of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, on the airless desolation of the Sea of Tranquility. If no one disturbs it, it will still be readable a million years from now.

Six more missions followed Apollo 11, all but one of which successfully landed on the lunar surface. Apollo 17 was the first to carry a scientist. As soon as he got there, the program was canceled. The first scientist and the last human to land on the Moon were the same person. The program had already served its purpose that July night in 1969. The half-dozen subsequent missions were just momentum.

Apollo was not mainly about science. It was not even mainly about space. Apollo was about ideological confrontation and nuclear war—often described by such euphemisms as world “leadership” and national “prestige.” Nevertheless, good space science was done. We now know much more about the composition, age, and history of the Moon and the origin of the lunar landforms. We have made progress in understanding where the Moon came from. Some of us have used lunar cratering statistics to better understand the Earth at the time of the origin of life. But more important than any of this, Apollo provided an aegis, an umbrella under which brilliantly engineered robot spacecraft were dispatched throughout the Solar System, making that preliminary reconnaissance of dozens of worlds. The offspring of Apollo have now reached the planetary frontiers.

If not for Apollo—and, therefore, if not for the political purpose it served—I doubt whether the historic American expeditions of exploration and discovery throughout the Solar System would have occurred, The Mariners, Vikings, Pioneers, Voyagers ,and Galileo are among the gifts of Apollo. Magellan and Cassini are more distant descendants. Something similar is true for the pioneering Soviet efforts in Solar System exploration, including the first soft landings of robot spacecraft—Luna 9, Mars 3, Venera 8-on other worlds.”

UNDERSTANDING THE PLANETS IS UNDERSTANDING US

Finally, Carl Sagan conveys one more time a universal message, through his self-identifying prism of international scientific cooperation, in a world without borders, as our planet naturally is, with the aim to protect our planet, our home and find the new ones. His words about the deontology of this relatively new field of science, the planetary science, can be concluded in some paragraphs, which explain the true value of planetary exploration, far and beyond contemporary goals of nation leaders. This is, however, the true value of science, which led humanity to its modern status, as we know it, and these temporary leaders to their power. However, leaders, national borders and policies, all knew and will know an end. The only thing that serves as a timeline of the achievements of our species is new scientific knowledge and its derivative, the tools to explore new worlds and feed again our questioning about the nature of the vast cosmic arena that we live in.

“PLANETARY SCIENCE fosters a broad interdisciplinary point of view that proves enormously helpful in discovering and attempting to defuse these looming environmental catastrophes. When you cut your teeth on other worlds, you gain a perspective about the fragility of planetary environments and about what other, quite different, environments are possible. There may well be potential global catastrophes still to be uncovered. If there are, I bet planetary scientists will play a central role in understanding them.

Of all the fields of mathematics, technology, and science, the one with the greatest international cooperation (as determined by how often the co-authors of research papers hail from two or more countries) is the field called “Earth and space sciences.” Studying this world and others, by its very nature, tends to be non-local, non-nationalist, non-chauvinist. Very rarely do people go into these fields because they are internationalists. Almost always, they enter for other reasons, and then discover that splendid work, work that complements their own, is being done by researchers in other nations; or that to solve a problem, you need data or a perspective (access to the southern sky, for example) that is unavailable in your country. And once you experience such cooperation—humans from different parts of the planet working in a mutually intelligible scientific language as partners on matters of common concern—it’s hard not to imagine it happening on other, nonscientific matters. I myself consider this aspect of Earth and space sciences as a healing and unifying force in world politics; but, beneficial or not, it is inescapable.

When I look at the evidence, it seems to me that planetary exploration is of the most practical and urgent utility for us here on Earth. Even if we were not roused by the prospect of exploring other worlds, even if we didn’t have a nanogram of adventuresome spirit in us, even if we were only concerned for ourselves and in the narrowest sense, planetary exploration would still constitute a superb investment.”

Book info:

Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot | Ballantine Books, 1994 |Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-94010 |ISBN: 0-345-37659-5

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