You can’t lie your way to Mars: the cosmos, awe and wonder with Ann Druyan

First high res colour image from the hazcams on the Perseverance Mars rover. Photo courtesy of NASA

“Touchdown confirmed,” a woman’s voice announced over the public address system. “Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the sands of past life.” The NASA control room erupted. Staff were on their feet, their arms raised in a victory ‘V’, whooping and hollering. The only difference between this and past scenes of human triumph in space was the surgical masks everyone was wearing. That’s space endeavour in the time of a pandemic for you.

Control room erupts in cheers. NASA

No, this wasn’t a scene from a movie. The voice was that of Swati Mohan, an engineer on the Perseverance team. London Screenwriters’ Festival creative director, Chris Jones, had chosen to show the clip of the February 18th Mars landing at the beginning of what would turn out to be a truly inspirational conversation about life, love and the cosmos with legendary science writer Ann Druyan.

“Why is everyone so happy about this?” she reflected, referencing the clip. “It’s a rare occasion for human self-esteem; it’s a rare moment where humans set out to do something tremendously ambitious – and everyone had to tell the truth – you can’t lie your way to Mars. If one person of the 10,000 people who touched this mission, if they were fudging things, if they were fibbing, lying, then the mission would have gone horribly awry. So here is this beautiful multi-generational effort of people from all over the world, working together, to do something mythic… I’m so proud just to have been even slightly part of this great adventure.”

Modesty is typical of this accomplished writer. Whether writing in her own right, or with her husband Carl Sagan, before his untimely death in 1996, Ann has succeeded in making complex science intelligible, and brought it to a wider audience. She’s the driving force behind the successful reboot of the Cosmos series on the National Geographic channel. To movie-goers her name will be familiar for having written the screen story, together with her husband, for the film Contact, based on his novel of the same name, and starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConnaughey.

Perhaps the project Ann is best known for is the Voyager Interstellar Message carried by the two Voyager spacecraft launched on September 5th, 1977. The two spacecraft conducted reconnaissance of the worlds of the outer solar system, before a gravitational assist flung them out into the Milky Way galaxy where they will continue to travel at roughly 38,000 miles/hour for the next 5 billion years.

At the request of Carl Sagan, Ann became the creative director, leading the team of six that chose 27 pieces of music from around the world, 118 pictures of life on earth, and a sound essay on the history of the planet, all stored on a phonograph record, as it was the best way they had of compressing so much data at that time. If she had to do the project again today, but was only allowed to include only one extra track, it would be Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”.

When asked about how she went about the sacred responsibility of providing an impression of humanity to any alien races who might encounter us, Ann said,

“Knowing that these two records, having crossed the heliosphere, which is that place where the solar wind dies and the interstellar medium begins… The idea that they will circumnavigate the milky way galaxy some ten times before they degrade too radically to be played, is just the most mind-blowing thing.”

This was the cue for Bob Schultz, the co-host of the session, to play us a clip from The West Wing which referenced the Voyager mission 24 years later, and 17 years ago, in the 101st episode (S5Ep13). It is one of the most poignant pieces of dialogue in the entire show. Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, says:

“Voyager, in case it’s ever encountered by extra-terrestrials, is carrying photos of life on Earth, greetings in 55 languages, and a collection of music from Gregorian chants to Chuck Berry. Including “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by ’20s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, whose stepmother blinded him when he was seven by throwing lye in his eyes after his father had beat her for being with another man. He died penniless of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down. But his music just left the solar system.”

Returning to the landing on Mars, Ann revealed that the scientist who made the mission possible is someone no-one has ever celebrated before his story was told in the latest series of Cosmos: Possible Worlds. She wanted to find out who was the first person to imagine that we could swing from world to world the way our ancestors would swing from tree to tree using gravitational assist. “It is absolutely the fundament of every major spacecraft mission,” she says. After dogged research, she discovered it was a Russian named Yuri Kondratyuk. He wrote a letter to the future from the trenches of World War I to tell the first people who would one day attempt to land on the moon how to do it. Science is possibly the only discipline that has a longer gestation period than filmmaking!

For Ann, science is a spiritual high, it’s a form of humility before nature, before time and space. She considers science to be a permanent revolution because it challenges our most cherished beliefs that may be incorrect. While she is sad that we have wasted so much time by not acting on scientists’ warnings about global warming – her husband being one of the earliest scientists to raise his voice — ultimately, her message is one of hope.

As the rover touched down…NASA

“We may be little guys, but we don’t think small. We’re out to find out the whole story of the universe. That’s bold. And we’re willing to let it displace us completely from our infantile dreams of being the centre of it. That’s brave. We can do this.”

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