Most readers know that New Page Books is a leading purveyor of fringe history. They publish ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken and ex-Nazi leader Frank Joseph, as well as the late Ancient Aliens pundit Philip Coppens. Most of you also know that they no longer provide me with review copies of their books because they don’t like the fact that I have been critical of their books, both in terms of their authors’ generally terrible content as well as the publisher’s tendency toward production errors in their books. That is why I must give credit to Donald L. Zygutis, the author if The Sagan Conspiracy: NASA’s Untold Plot to Suppress the People’s Scientist’s Theory of Ancient Aliens from New Page Books. He generously provided me with a copy of the book at his own expense with the proviso that I hold nothing back in fairly and honestly evaluating the claims made in his book. I will also give New Page a compliment: Their cover design for the book is exceptionally attractive, even if the interior pages are missing some of the standard features you’d expect in professionally published works, and where widows and orphans (printers’ terms for single lines of a paragraph that spill onto a new page or single words that dangle at the end of a paragraph) are badly handled, resulting in uneven text blocks on pages.
Zygutis has spent the past four decades studying Carl Sagan’s ancient astronaut beliefs, and he claims to be the world’s leading expert on this exceptionally narrow subject. As he states in the introduction, his thesis is that “in 1964, NASA officials, under the direction of the Pentagon, made the fateful decision to suppress the writings and muzzle the voice of a young Carl Sagan regarding his belief in ancient aliens.” This is a shocking and dramatic charge, and one that would require a high burden of documentary proof to sustain. Sadly, within a few paragraphs the author concedes that “I am not in a position to disclose the names and titles of individuals responsible for this travesty of justice,” so instead his true goal is to “broadcast Sagan’s ancient alien research” around the world. But without specifics, surely we have nothing but hearsay to rely upon, and as we shall see, we don’t even really have that either.
Zygutis believes that NASA and the Pentagon acted in order to keep the public and most researchers from reading a 1962 Planetary and Space Science paper, funded by a NASA grant, in which Sagan speculated on the possibility that space aliens visited the ancient Earth. In the article, he drew on Soviet ancient astronaut claims from writers like Matest M. Agrest (whose specific evidence he rejected) to ask whether ancient people might have encountered space visitors. “Mysteriously,” Zygutis writes, “no one spoke of it, no one critiqued it, and no one referenced it.” He claims that Sagan scholars are mostly unaware of its existence, and he bluntly states that from his teen years to his death Sagan was always an “ancient alien theorist” who believed that civilization was a “gift” from aliens.
As we get into the book, it’s probably good to establish a few facts that make a prima facie case against Zygutis’s thesis. That 1962 paper, “Direct Contact among Galactic Civilizations by Relativistic Interstellar Spaceflight,” delivered to the American Rocket Society in 1962 and published in Planetary and Space Science vol. 11 (1963), pp. 485-498, has never been suppressed. It has always been available in the archives of its journal, and the manuscript is housed at the Library of Congress. The article was indexed in the 1964 Space Science Board report to the Committee on Space Research and the 1966 Extraterrestrial Life: An Anthology and Bibliography, and it does indeed appear as reference in journal articles, such as a 1970 Quarterly Review of Biology article by Cyril Ponnamperuma and Harold P. Klein on the search for life on Mars (vol. 45, no. 3, pp. 234-258). On May 24, 1963, it was even referenced by name in Life magazine, then one of America’s most widely read publications, with around eight million copies sold each week.
But more importantly, Sagan took the material from this article and expanded it tenfold for his expansion of I. S. Shlovskii’s Universe, Life, Intelligence on the possibility of alien life, published in 1966 as Intelligent Life in the Universe. This book superseded the earlier article and became the standard work of Sagan’s on the subject, which later writers cited. Material from both the article and the book, far from being hidden, was quoted and discussed at length in Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Far from being secret, this material appears in most standard biographies of Sagan. It is my understanding that Sagan never retracted his contention that ancient visitations by space aliens were possible, but maintained that his later evaluation of the facts demonstrated that no evidence to support ancient astronaut claims existed. His position changed gradually. His 1968 testimony to Congress saw him already viewing ancient astronaut ideas as more religious than scientific since there was no physical evidence for aliens, and in 1973’s The Cosmic Connection he rejected his own earlier claims from Intelligent Life about ancient astronauts, adding that von Däniken’s claims as “implausible in the extreme” and “strikingly chauvinistic” for imagining aliens in the image of 1960s human astronauts. This upset Erich von Däniken immensely, and in a 1978 interview in Ancient Astronauts magazine he said that he felt betrayed by Sagan’s change of heart, declaring Sagan’s newer work to be “rubbish and garbage.”
This gives us a good starting point for evaluating the author’s claims of a conspiracy to suppress these facts.
Zygutis believes a fairer reading of the facts shows that NASA and the Pentagon (to which he later adds “professional skeptics”) actively suppressed Sagan’s work on ancient aliens in 1964, forbade him from speaking truthfully about his beliefs from 1964 to 1990, and lost control when Sagan tried to go rogue and reveal the truth about ancient space aliens before he died in 1996 in the middle of writing a paper on ancient astronauts.
From the start, it’s clear that Zygutis has misunderstood Sagan’s original paper and used that to mischaracterize his later work. In “Direct Contact,” Sagan uses mathematical formulae to calculate an extremely rough probability that Earth was visited by other civilizations. This is based on a series of assumptions about the number of such civilizations in the universe, the rate of their exploration efforts, and their ability to achieve speeds near the speed of light, all of which Sagan admits are derived from “poorly understood” information about the universe. It takes the form of a thought experiment in which we are asked to assume the existence of a confederation of aliens who are intent on exploring the universe. While Sagan, enamored of his own calculations, concluded that if his assumptions were accurate then Earth was visited sometime in the past by at least one spacefaring race (and possibly 10^4 times!), he did not, as Zygutis claims, create a “formal model” with a “search strategy” to prove ancient aliens visited the Earth. His so-called model was mathematical speculation based on a series of assumptions on the probability that aliens could reach the Earth, with a brief evaluation of how we might determine which myths and legends are worthy of exploration. Sagan himself would eventually concede that some of the assumptions he made about the prevalence of alien civilizations way back when were “rather optimistic” (Science, April 29, 1983, p. 462). In the 1962 article, he included a list of possible ways to search for evidence of aliens, but these were not developed into a formal research program or a formal analysis of how to separate alien from earthbound explanations. As he himself noted in 1962, no conclusive evidence existed. It’s clear that Sagan had an interest in the question of whether aliens might have visited the Earth (it was an interest of his since his teen years as an avid science fiction reader), but nothing in the paper suggest that he considered it likely, or that he had any particular interest in ancient aliens vs. the currently existing ones who are the concern of the majority of the paper and the majority of his work. Nevertheless, Zygutis carries his misreading of the paper forward through the rest of the book, and it undergirds the entire argument—indeed, the paper grows in Zygutis’ mind from its true dimensions into a “secret research project” into aliens on the ancient Earth.
The hard truth is that Sagan’s paper isn’t remarkably different from any number of fringe, journalistic, or scientific claims speculating on the likelihood of aliens reaching Earth that erupted in the wake of the start of the UFO age; it differs only in that it attempts to quantify it with math and has a brief section drawing on the same Soviet ancient astronaut claims that were already circulating in UFO books of the era. But even this was not unique among government documents. In 1968, for example, the National Security Agency commissioned a report citing Jacques Vallée and Soviet ancient astronaut writers as proof of ancient astronauts, so it seems there was hardly a conspiracy against ancient astronauts in the U.S. government.
Zygutis seizes on two sentences to twist Sagan’s speculation into a conclusion. The sentences are these, referring to the Babylonian myth of Oannes, as given by Berossus, which he knew secondhand from Cory’s Ancient Fragments: “There are other legends which more nearly satisfy the foregoing contact criteria, and which deserve serious study in the present context. As one example, we may mention the Babylonian account of the origin of Sumerian civilization by the Apkallu, representatives of an advanced, nonhuman and possibly extraterrestrial society.” From this Zygutis claims that Sagan was “positing that godlike aliens were physically on Earth, our Earth, establishing a human civilization through the Sumerians.” This is not at all what Sagan said. He merely claimed that the myth (which he later learned was a late rewrite of an earlier and very different story) came closer to meeting his suggested criterial for what an ancient account of alien contact might be expected to look like. This is not the same thing. As I said, when Sagan learned that myths have many different versions, often contradictory, and he revised his position, writing in 1973: “There is only one category of legend that would be convincing: When information is contained in the legend that could not possibly have been generated by the civilization that created the legend—if, for example, a number transmitted from thousands of years ago as holy turns out to be the nuclear fine-structure constant. This would be a case worthy of some considerable attention.” Fish-men who rose up from the sea didn’t make the cut.
Nevertheless, Zygutis is overly taken with the Oannes story and follows ancient astronaut theorists in imagining that the Sumerians were an unprecedented eruption of modernity into a hell-scape of primitive savagery, going so far as to say that the “Empires that followed added almost nothing” to the contributions of the Sumerians, which is patently false and overly dismissive of the cultures that came before them. The Sumerians were not sui generis, even if their origins are unclear. And in no wise, as Zygutis alleges, did Sagan claim that space aliens gave civilization to the Sumerians.
Zygutis offers no evidence beyond Sagan’s 1962 paper that he expressed prior interest in ancient astronauts, or that he was a true believer, as Zygutis thinks. He cites no letters, no speeches, no memoirs, no conversations with friends or colleagues. Without such evidence, we can only say that Sagan thought ancient aliens possible (as do I, or anyone else who can recognize a hypothesis that can be evaluated against evidence) but we cannot judge the depth of his conviction in 1962, if indeed he considered it a probability rather than a thought experiment or a remote possibility worthy of consideration. This is a failure of Zygutis’s scholarship, and also a failure of his book, asking us to accept on faith what we should evaluate with evidence.
Similarly, his views of a NASA conspiracy are also faith-based. Zygutis claims that the evidence is in the absence of NASA interest in the paper: “The absolute absence of any official follow-up analysis or response from NASA regarding [Sagan’s] Stanford Paper is passive evidence of a concerted effort by NASA to distance itself from scientific research conducted with its commission and under its oversight by one of its own astronomers.” No, it isn’t. It’s perhaps evidence of indifference, but Zygutis offers no statistical analysis of how many NASA-funded papers received “official follow-up analysis” for us to consider how unusual this was, or what outlets Zygutis reviewed to determine “official” responses. Thus, I cannot support his conclusion that this paper “became a lost manuscript” and that “no one spoke of it” after its publication. The facts I described above refute that notion.
But Zygius needs there to be a NASA-Pentagon conspiracy in order to justify his belief that Sagan’s speculative calculations weren’t just a thought experiment based on assumptions but a dangerous “heresy that undermined NASA’s very existence.” He believes in a fiduciary conspiracy whereby the Pentagon wanted to preserved the search for aliens in space in order to reap the benefits of the research funded through NASA that would evaporate should archaeology surpass astronomy in the search for alien life.
Zygutis chooses not to provide evidence of a conspiracy in the form you’d expect: eyewitness accounts, private correspondence, government records, etc. Instead, he proceeds from his unproven assumption that Sagan had become convinced that “ancient manuscripts” held evidence of prehistoric contact with space aliens (despite rejecting the idea that ancient texts could provide conclusive evidence in his 1962 paper and despite the fact that Sagan never researched the primary sources—odd for someone who thought they had proof of aliens!) and spins this into a tale of suppression and repression. He argues that Sagan was locked into an intellectual death match with Frank Drake, the man who proposed a mathematical model for estimating the number of alien civilizations, and that all scientists everywhere secretly conspired to promote Drake’s views on aliens over the (fictitious) views of Sagan. Zygutis then presents his main claim—that the Pentagon informed Sagan that to receive government funding he had to silence his advocacy of the ancient astronaut theory—as a question! “Perhaps,” he said, they did this. Well, perhaps not! In real life, Drake and Sagan worked together on numerous projects. Zygutis offers no testimony from either man or any witnesses that there was any animus over ancient astronauts. In fact, while Zygutis says that Drake criticized Sagan’s 1962 paper as “bad science,” (cited, without page numbers, to a biography of Sagan where I was unable to find the phrase), in 1967 Drake reviewed Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe in The American Scientist (vol. 55, no. 3) and praised the book: “It is a balanced and complete account of the thinking and research that has taken place with regard to extraterrestrial intelligent life,” Drake wrote. He cited its section on ancient astronauts specifically as “intriguing.” Oh, sure: That certainly sounds like an effort to suppress and oppress Sagan! By contrast, the much more widely read Science said that the same section on Oannes was “entertaining, and very far from proved.”
Similarly, Zygutis fails to back up his belief, derived from “admittedly circumstantial evidence,” that Sagan’s 1962 paper was a “charter document” in the creation of an Avengers-like “team of experts” to scour the Earth for ancient manuscripts referencing space aliens. In 1962, Sagan actually said that texts and art “may never” provide convincing evidence of aliens—a direct challenge to Zygutis’s characterization of Sagan’s 1962 beliefs.
Zygutis concedes that he cannot prove his speculation to be fact, though he thinks that his (wrong) reading of the 1962 paper suggests it. “It’s my story and I’m sticking with it,” he writes.
The key event in the conspiracy occurs many years later, in 1968, when Harvard University denied Sagan tenure. No one knows why—the participants, many now dead, never said. Speculation ranged from distaste at Sagan’s populism to disgust at his interest in UFOs and space aliens to upset that his research lacked a certain degree of substance. Zygutis assumes this is part of the conspiracy, knocking Sagan down and reminding him to keep quiet about ancient astronauts. This was the same year, however that Erich von Däniken included a discussion and excerpts of Sagan’s work in his Chariots of the Gods, a publication that the vast forces of conspiracy somehow failed to censor, and which went on to expose millions of Americans to Sagan’s speculation, both book form and through its serialization in the National Enquirer, then one of America’s most-read newspapers, with a weekly circulation of nearly 6 million.
At this point, I reached about one-third of the way through the book, and I wondered greatly why I was able to marshal a wealth of evidence, testimony, and quotations from sources scholarly and popular to support my impression of events while the author offered nothing by way of contemporary evidence for his conspiracy. It should not be up to me to do the author’s research for him, and it seems silly that my review should have more sources and evidence than the book it critiques. I counted, and, if we omit references to the dictionary and to generic websites, there are only 35 sources for the entire book, of which most are popular biographies or general interest science books.
Tomorrow, I will explore the remainder of the book and see if Zygutis can provide better evidence to support his claims than the first third of the book offered.
Continue on to Part 2
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.
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