Like a lot of ufologists, I have a problem with S.E.T.I., or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. It's always seemed to me that if UFOs are real, then you don't need to listen for alien signals from space, you should start looking here on Earth. So the news that the Allen Telescope Array near Mount Shasta is being shut down over the budget crisis leaves me with mixed feelings. I'm in favor of science, but I'm not in favor of sham.
But it has me thinking about one of America's earliest and strongest advocates of S.E.T.I., Carl Sagan.
Sagan took America by storm during the 1970s and 1980s and became, practically speaking, America’s public Scientist-in-Chief. He first entered millions of living rooms as the affable scientist who appeared regularly on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The Cornell University professor had a passion for astronomy and a gift of making complex ideas easy to understand.
Sagan’s celebrity increased with the release of the PBS Cosmos series in 1980, when he became famous for his phrase “billions and billions” (which he denied ever saying exactlly in those words) to describe galaxies, stars, and planets. He pioneered the science of exobiology and promoted SETI through the use of radio telescopes to listen for signals from space.
As an investigative reporter for PBS, specializing in space science, I met Carl Sagan several times in 1981. Cosmos was still airing on the network, and the unmanned Voyager spacecraft was approaching the planet Saturn.
Sagan gave a live, on-air interview as the pictures came in and were assembled by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He was effusive about what a great moment it was for humanity. He talked passionately about how this first step beyond Earth would someday lead to manned adventures further and further into space. He was positive that the universe, because of the sheer numbers of habitable planets and what he saw as the “bias” toward life, would be teeming with intelligent beings.