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'Cosmos' then and now: The 'personal voyage' of Carl Sagan, the Hollywood cool of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Like reboots of most anything, be it the Star Trek film franchise or the Hannibal television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (premiering Sunday, March 9 on Fox) does not require familiarity with its original incarnation to be appreciated and enjoyed. Yet comparing the two shows, and their first episodes, is instructive. The first Cosmos, broadcast on PBS in 1980, had a different subtitle: “A personal voyage.” The person implied was the viewer — all of humanity. It was also the creative intelligence behind the series, astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who died in 1996. His widely watched series explored all of creation, and expressed all of himself — his mind, his heart, his hopes, his fears. Sagan wanted to use popular culture to evangelize science, exploration, and a worldview that was infinitely bigger than the world itself.

Inspiration for the series sprung from disappointment. In 1976, Sagan, then a member of the Viking Lander Imaging Team at NASA surveying Mars with robots, was dismayed by the lack of attention given to their historic, important work by the news media. At the time, the cultural narratives about space focused on the question of alien life and hospitable planets, and Team Viking couldn’t support reductive storylines about little green men or interplanetary manifest destiny. But Sagan was convinced the public was hungrier for knowledge — and more capable of appreciating complexity — than the press assumed. In the companion book to Cosmos, Sagan wrote: “I was positive from my own experience that an enormous global interest exists in the exploration of the planets and in many kindred scientific topics — the origin of life, the earth, and the Cosmos, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, our connection with universe. And I was certain that this interest could be excited through that most powerful communications medium, television.”

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