Remembering Carl Sagan: “We Are the Custodians of Life’s Meaning”

We lost Carl Sagan on this day, seventeen years ago. It was only in the last few years that I have discovered his voice and his wisdom. And I wanted to share one of the best compilations in his memory, compiled by Reid Grower and simply titled The Sagan Series. It’s a series of ten YouTube videos with Sagan narrating the wonder of our planet, space exploration, and our life’s purpose.

My favourite is probably the first video, which to this day, is still the best encapsulation of why man should and will venture out into space.

But my favorite quote probably comes from the third video, titled “A Reassuring Fable.” In it, Sagan notes on the meaning of life:

We long to be here for a purpose. Even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning.

He goes on to say:

We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better, by far, to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable…If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.


Regardless of where you stand in the religion/science spectrum, The Sagan Series is the best thing you can watch today.

Sandra Magnus: What It Is Like to Travel into Space

Sandra Magnus was one of the four astronauts (along with Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, and Rex Walheim) who made up the crew of the last space shuttle mission, STS-135. In the most recent issue of Georgia Tech’s Alumni Magazine*, Sandra Magnus recounts what it is like traveling into space:

The thing that catches everybody by surprise, the thing you can’t train for, and the thing you’re constantly warned about as a rookie is that, when you get up there, you have to have a plan. You’re going to take your gloves off—where are you going to put them? You can’t just set them down. You have to put them in a bag, or under your chair. You can’t disconnect your five-point harness. Leave at least one band around your leg so you don’t just float up out of the seat. When you take your helmet off, you’ve got to get it in the bag. The recommended way to take your helmet off is to put the bag on your head, then disconnect your helmet and take it off as a unit. You’ve got to get out of your seat, and your parachute is going to want to float away as soon as you get up and disconnect from it. You’re in this bulky suit, so your footprint is rather large. The first time you get to space it’s a little overwhelming if you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re going to do with your stuff. You develop a step-by-step plan. “Take gloves off, put them under leg. Put the crew notebook on the Velcro on the console on the right side of my seat. Turn off the cooling unit. Disconnect the cooling unit.” These are the first 20 actions I’m going to take in space.

By the time you get up there, you’re just overwhelmed, because your brain’s busy processing the bizarre environment. You have work to do. You can’t just sit and look around with wonder.

A brief rumination on what kind of food they serve in space (it doesn’t sound so bad at all):

Living in space, on the station, you’re on a rotating menu. You see the same thing over and over and over again. The food in itself is actually really good. It’s a little higher in salt content than I would normally have. They need to do that, they claim. You get a decent variety, but you miss crunchy, and you miss fresh. And I miss melted cheese. I always look forward to a piece of pizza when I get home.

Every now and then you’ll get a cargo vehicle with a load of apples and oranges, onions and garlic. Crunching into an apple is very rewarding when they show up. And the oranges, they have that nice citrusy smell—that’s very nice.

I always liked the red beans and rice. The Japanese had a mackerel and miso sauce that tasted like fresh fish. It was awesome. I liked the cherry, blueberry cobbler. I liked the creamed spinach. Shrimp cocktail is good. A lot of the veggie dishes are good. The Russians’ mashed potatoes and mushrooms are very good.

I respect Sandra’s stance on being responsible, regardless of gender/class:

We’ve had women in the [Astronaut] Office since 1978. They represent 20 percent of the office. Which, if you look broadly at science and engineering, it mirrors pretty closely. It’s certainly as male-dominated as engineering.

It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. It matters that people can count on you. You’re expected to contribute, pull your weight, react certain ways in an emergency. People’s lives depend on you. And you’ve trained with these people forever. They’re like your brothers. I feel like you know their sense of humor; you know their family really well. It’s like acquiring new family members.

A very good personal account overall.


*I am a subscriber to the magazine, as I am a Georgia Tech alum. This is another excellent feature in the magazine.