New Book Claims Carl Sagan Was an Ancient Astronaut Theorist Badgered by Government into Silence
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.
10/6/2016 11:12:53 am
When going back to the book he co-wrote with Shklovskiii Sagan stated he was receptive to the idea Earth had been visited by Aliens, but not without proof.
10/6/2016 11:22:42 am
10/6/2016 12:18:51 pm
Do you even bother reading the articles?
10/6/2016 04:37:28 pm
How boring are you
10/6/2016 11:52:37 am
My guess is that if the author or publisher reads this blog you won't be getting a review copy any time soon. :)
10/6/2016 12:08:33 pm
New Page stopped sending me books years ago, so I didn't hold out hope anyway.
10/6/2016 12:15:07 pm
Sagan: “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.”
10/6/2016 04:26:43 pm
Why do you believe there to be a Word of God?
10/6/2016 04:39:10 pm
The word of God is just a metaphor for understanding and perception.
10/6/2016 05:25:54 pm
Actually, timemachine, there is no Word of God because there is no God. God-demons, yes, but not God.
10/6/2016 07:05:15 pm
10/6/2016 07:17:13 pm
Just found a reference to the following book
10/6/2016 06:19:50 pm
Gunn, I think you're misunderstanding Sagan's comment a bit by taking it as a personal slight on your own beliefs, so I'll try to elucidate a bit.
10/6/2016 07:01:21 pm
I agree that many so-called demons are products of the mind. Tame the mind, tame the demons.
10/6/2016 07:07:16 pm
10/6/2016 08:40:16 pm
Time Machine: I disagree. those words were very good and I enjoyed reading them and responding to them.
10/7/2016 01:13:54 am
And I appreciate the response, Buddhist. Intelligent commentary and debate on any matter is always welcome.
10/7/2016 04:40:51 am
Clint Knapp has the highest praise and the most superficial understanding of The Bible - a book that is based on psychedelics.
10/7/2016 04:43:50 am
Here's a good example of Clint's stuff,
An Over-Educated Grunt
10/7/2016 09:20:19 am
This pains me to say, but I agree with Time Machine here. My personal understanding of "God" is as a shorthand for the collection of rules that govern the physical universe. Anything beyond that by definition cannot be fully understood and therefore any study of it must be speculation. In that sense, the Word of God is a furthering of the understanding of how the machine works, which he'd describe as enlightenment.
10/7/2016 11:25:24 am
Nice response, Clint. I was trying to point out that Sagan did, in fact, assign emotional exactitude, that being a sameness, to people believing in religion and aliens. And again, how would he know?
10/8/2016 01:32:16 am
>>>God said, God said<<<
Day Late and Dollar Short
10/6/2016 12:55:03 pm
I don't understand. True believers in UFOlogy and the ancient astronaut theory seem just as emotionally invested and faithful in their new age religion as believers of traditional religions.
10/6/2016 07:09:01 pm
You never knew there was no difference between Aliens and Angels ? God riding on his cloud and ETs in their flying saucers ?
Day Late and Dollar Short
10/7/2016 02:05:35 pm
Sorry, that was supposed to be in response to Gunn waaaaay above it.
10/7/2016 06:49:22 pm
Day Late and Dollar Short:
10/6/2016 01:25:54 pm
SETI and its formation would discount the notion that Drake, or later Sagan, were suppressed at all, and Cosmos the original show from the 70s touched on these ideas.
10/6/2016 03:41:43 pm
It is arrogant to think that aliens are bipedal, bilateral, or even carbon-based
10/6/2016 04:13:59 pm
I suspect that aliens, should they ever have visited us, would have first researched earth to determine that it was similar to their own. Just as we search for 'earth-like planets' to perhaps someday visit.
10/6/2016 04:43:09 pm
Searching for planets similar to their own would certainly be expected. But we are assuming that their planet has been just like ours for 4 billion years and developed life with nearly identical results. Leads us back Sagan and to what is possible and what is probable.
10/6/2016 04:45:52 pm
Why should there be metal ships ?
10/6/2016 04:51:50 pm
No big deal, people convert to other religions all the time
10/6/2016 05:01:14 pm
Not all people
10/6/2016 07:34:22 pm
I agree with everything but the last part--it's not arrogant to think that there is a high likelihood that aliens would be carbon-based life forms because of the chemical properties of carbon that make it so extremely versatile, combined with the relative abundance of carbon in the universe as compared to other elements with similar chemical properties. It's arrogant to completely rule out the possibility of life that is not carbon-based, but not arrogant to suppose that it is very likely to be.
10/6/2016 07:41:24 pm
God is not a carbon-based form
10/6/2016 07:44:56 pm
Also, Ken I posit: technologically-advanced cephalopods. Carbon-based, probably, but neither bipedal nor bilateral, and yet one could make the case that our world, 71% covered as it is by water, would likely be "very similar" to their own world, and yet, one really cannot say that tentacled water-breathing creatures are much like humans at all, or even that they evolved in a similar environment.
10/6/2016 08:36:01 pm
I probably should should not have said "similar to humans...". rather similar in some respects to other known earth lifeforms... Whatever that lifeform was, it would probably have a relatively large brain.
10/6/2016 01:26:54 pm
Surpressing has become the new word for "has an opposing opinion and is voicing it".
10/7/2016 09:47:47 pm
10/6/2016 01:59:30 pm
Mr Zygutis seems to think that there are very few survivors from the 1960's and can therefore get away with scribbling a pseudo history about a prominent science writer.
10/7/2016 02:43:22 am
He would not be the first. Shortly after Sagans death the short lived TV series 'Dark Skies' included an episode in which Sagan is recruited by a government conspiracy specifically to cover up the existence of extraterrestrials.
10/6/2016 02:48:01 pm
I dote on this blog to steer me away from crazy beliefs. When Jason writes about UFOs and aliens, what he's really addressing is mankind's reactions to those. As a result, it appears as though he is disparaging, debunking, denigrating --can't find the right word--the phenomena themselves when in reality it is our stupid reaction to these two things --UFOs and alien existence and visitation--that should be criticized. I kind of wonder if the gov't chose Carl Sagan to be the heir apparent to Donald Menzel.
10/6/2016 04:30:17 pm
"... considered Sagan a self-promoter..." .
An Over-Educated Grunt
10/7/2016 09:13:57 am
The two aren't mutually exclusive.
10/6/2016 07:35:36 pm
Not a document I would expect to find in the Seth MacFarlane Collection!?
10/6/2016 11:39:46 pm
According to a Washington Post article dated November 12, 2013, the collection was named for Seth because he donated the money that allowed the Library of Congress to purchase a staggering 798 boxes worth of papers Sagan kept throughout his life from Carl's widow, Ann Druyan.
10/7/2016 07:55:03 am
Plus, as I forgot but my wife reminded me, MacFarlane had a TV show featuring an alien living with an American family. He's obviously interested in the subject.
10/8/2016 08:37:47 pm
Futurama the cartoon did a hilarious episode about aliens coming to Earth of their century, 3010 or so, to evangelize and then convert Earth humans to their religion.
10/11/2016 02:20:30 pm
I can't say for sure, but I have always thought that Sagan wouldn't have said such a silly thing about Oannes if he had known that Berossus got the story, which was actually the Adapa myth, completely wrong.
10/14/2016 04:11:55 pm
It's interesting to hear Mr. Colavito opine so extensively and in such detail on a book he hasn't yet read - must be clairvoyant. Nevertheless, I appreciate his challenges, and I assure him that they will all be addressed in the book: The Sagan Conspiracy, due to be released Nov. 21, 2016.
A commenter to my blog has pointed out that the full text of Sagan 1962, printed, is freely available at this link:
4/17/2018 12:01:51 pm
if it can happen it probably will happen quote quantum physis
7/4/2019 10:21:41 pm
..the real point here is not a conspiracy theory about whether someone urged Sagan to retract/alter his views on AA; rather it's that Sagan's idea on Ancient Astronauts came prior to Von Daniken's, the latter now universally reviled by the anti-ancient astronaut establishment. Sagan didn't need to be nudged by anyone; he merely gave into mob rule, he was human after all...
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.