Yesterday a man named Donald L. Zygutis contacted me to try to interest me in his upcoming book The Sagan Conspiracy from New Page Books. The title, to be published in November, argues that Carl Sagan was secretly a believer in the ancient astronaut theory and that the Pentagon and NASA conspired to suppress Sagan’s ancient astronaut research and use him as an anti-ancient-astronaut propagandist. Here is part of the book description:
But how many Carl Sagan fans know that while the renowned scientist was at Stanford University, he produced a controversial paper, funded by a NASA research grant, that concludes ancient alien intervention may have sparked human civilization? Author Donald Zygutis lays out a compelling case that points to a cover-up by the Pentagon and NASA, who may have buried it soon after it was written. How significant is the Stanford Paper? The answer may lie in another question: How would a science-backed theory and search strategy to guide the discovery of alien artifacts among our own ancient civilizations impact the worldwide institutions of government, religion, and culture?
I asked the author to have the publisher send me a review copy, and we will see whether they do. However, I am skeptical that the author can make a case for a government cover-up since the evidence in the public record argues quite forcefully against the claim.
Let’s start with the background. In 1962, Carl Sagan was working at Stanford University, and at the time he produced a paper called “Direct Contact Among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight.” The paper was unexceptional for its era, relying on the Drake Equation to calculate the probability that life existed on other planets. From this, Sagan speculates on the number of advanced civilizations and the likelihood that one might have contacted Earth in the distant past, writing that “there is the statistical likelihood that Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times.” He speculated that the story the Babylonian priest Berosus told about the fish-man Oannes was actually the story of space aliens landing on Earth.
Sagan presented the paper to the American Rocket Society in November 1962, and a version was published in Planetary and Space Science in 1963. Sagan’s handwritten copy of the paper is accessible through the Library of Congress as part of the (yes, seriously) Seth MacFarlane Collection.
For his part, Frank Drake, the inventor of the Drake equation, considered Sagan’s views to be “brash.” Nevertheless, Sagan’s argument would appear wholesale in Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1968), but probably not directly from this paper.
You see, in the 1960s, Sagan had met Ukrainian scientist I. S. Shklovskii, who believed that cosmic rays had microwaved the dinosaurs to death. He sent Shklovskii his “Direct Contact” article, and Shklovskii loved it. Sagan invited Shklovskii to publish an American edition of his 1962 book Universe, Life, Intelligence, and Shklovskii agreed, with the stipulation that Sagan become coauthor and edit and expand the book as he saw fit. The fruit of that collaboration was Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966), in which Sagan added fully 50% of the book’s content, including the section on Berosus and Oannes from his 1962 paper: “Stories like the Oannes legend, and representations especially of the earliest civilizations on Earth, deserve much more critical studies than have been performed heretofore, with the possibility of direct contact with an extraterrestrial civilization as one of many possible alternative explanations.” He also added speculation on whether the moons of Mars were built by aliens.
So, not only was Sagan’s 1962 paper not suppressed, it was published in an academic journal (a copy of which is held in NASA’s archives), included in a popular book, and displayed (for free) on the website of the Library of Congress.
But it gets better.
Intelligent Life in the Universe helped provide some of the intellectual underpinnings for Chariots of the Gods (such as they were)—the book was cited explicitly in Chariots, as was Sagan’s paper. Here is how von Däniken describes Sagan’s work in Chariots: “The American astrobiologist Dr. Sagan assures us that according to statistical calculations alone the possibility exists that our earth may have been visited by representatives of an extra-terrestrial civilisation at least once in the course of its history.” Indeed, Erich von Däniken considered Sagan’s presentation of the 1961 paper to be part of a “secret conference” of scientists to determine how many alien species existed in the universe. Intelligent Life was also the direct inspiration for Robert Temple to make Oannes the centerpiece of The Sirius Mystery.
Does this sound like NASA and the Pentagon suppressed Sagan’s work?
If anything, it was the Soviet government that suppressed work on aliens. After the Soviet government turned against the ancient astronaut theory in 1968 (having supported it in the 1950s and early 1960s), the Soviets refused to let Shklovskii leave the country. Sagan had tried to meet in person with him, having written their collaborative book by mail (!), and the two were only able to meet in 1971, in Soviet Armenia, as part of an international conference on the search for space aliens.
In 1968, Sagan testified before Congress about space aliens, and in his testimony he repeated many of the same claims, but in decidedly more sober fashion, downplaying the probability that space aliens visited the ancient earth. “So, to conclude what I understand is the main reason why this committee has asked me to testify, it is not beyond any question of doubt that we can be visited. There are great difficulties from our present point of view. They are not insuperable.” It is in the Congressional Record that Carl Sagan told Congress (including then-congressman Donald Rumsfeld, later Secretary of Defense) that it was perfectly possible that space aliens visited Earth.
I ask again: Does this sound like NASA and the Pentagon suppressed this information?
The question, though, is why Sagan changed his mind. His Congressional testimony gives some clues. Sagan had gradually come to realize the improbable mathematics behind space aliens making it to Earth even once, let alone repeatedly throughout history. He also seems to have been chastened by the rebuke he received in being denied tenure at Harvard. Speculation at the time was that Harvard’s professors considered Sagan a self-promoter, and that many disliked his “alien” research.
But in the Congressional testimony we also see that Sagan had expanded beyond a superficial understanding of sociology to gradually realize that the alien question was less about nuts and bolts and math than it is about social processes. He told Congress that “There are individuals who very strongly want to believe that UFO's are of intelligent extraterrestrial origin. Essentially to my view, for religious motives; that is, things are so bad down here, maybe somebody from up there will come and save us from ourselves.” Consider his rebuke to Erich von Däniken in the 1977 BBC/PBS Horizon/NOVA special “The Case of the Ancient Astronauts”: “The idea that we are being visited or were once visited by powerful benign beings who live in the sky is after a religious idea, the terminology is slightly different, we don't talk about angels, we talk about extra-terrestrials but the emotional significance is identical.”
Oh, and Sagan also decided to actually learn something about the myth of Oannes beyond the superficial research into ancient history he had done in the 1960s. After doing so, he categorically rejected the idea that Oannes represented a space alien in 1973 in his book Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective.
Sagan never changed his original conclusion that visitation by aliens was possible, but he did change his conclusions about whether such as a thing was probable and whether there was any evidence for it.
I will look forward to learning what the Pentagon-NASA conspiracy is, but whatever it was, it seems not to have been very effective. Arguably, Chariots of the Gods and The Sirius Mystery wouldn’t have come together without Sagan.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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