Sagan Under Siege
“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” —John Heywood, 1546
To this point I believe that I have made what I think is a compelling argument that a core component of the Sagan Model of ancient alienism, interstellar spaceflight, is a near-inevitable capability for long-lived alien civilizations. To put the finishing touches on my argument, I suggest that the ancient alien debate can be reduced to two simple premises: (1) If ETI can’t get here, they couldn’t have been here, and (2) if ETI can get here, it’s a near certainty that they have been here. Over the past 20 years, extraordinary developments have been taking place within NASA that lend significant scientific weight to the Sagan Model of ancient alienism, the most notable being the complete reversal of what for decades was a cornerstone NASA doctrine: that interstellar spaceflight is impossible because overwhelming technological challenges and Einstein’s cosmic speed limit meant that aliens could not have physically traversed the vast distances of space to get from their planet to ours.
The negative premise, that interstellar spaceflight is impossible, was a NASA/SETI cornerstone for more than 30 years. That cornerstone has now been wiped away by the stark reality that the United States is currently building an interstellar starship that will be up and operational by the end of this century. Yet, despite the obvious, there are undoubtedly a few stragglers around who still are thinking that star travel is a forever impossibility. If you’re one of them, this chapter is for you.
In the early 1990s, NASA’s long-time denial of interstellar spaceflight, and the reason it rejected the Sagan Model of ancient alienism, became a major roadblock to Pentagon plans to design and build an interstellar spacecraft by the end of this century. It envisioned a fleet of manned interstellar spacecraft armed with futuristic weapon systems that would keep the United States and the West militarily ahead of their rivals. I know, it sounds like science fiction, something straight out of Star Wars, but it’s true, and the force behind this ambitious project is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Created in 1958, DARPA is the lead agency guiding the United States and the West into a future where interstellar spaceflight will be commonplace. But in 1964, it was just the reverse. Back then, DARPA had a profound influence on NASA’s decision to bury the Sagan Model of ancient alienism—on the grounds that interstellar spaceflight was impossible.
An excellent book on DARPA is The Pentagon’s Brain (2015) by bestselling investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen.2 In cross-referencing Jacobsen’s extensive research against my collection of Sagan biographies, I found an abundance of direct and anecdotal evidence that Carl Sagan, in 1964, was so totally and completely devastated by NASA’s violent rejection of his model of ancient alienism that it changed his career and fundamentally altered his outlook on life. His dream of seeing ancient alienism research become a part of the scientific mainstream, years before the subject was turned into a pseudoscientific circus, was shattered. Invisibly, behind the scenes, it is clear that DARPA played a key role in destroying that dream.
Think of the Pentagon as a kind of matryoshka doll. Ensconced within a defense department wrapped in seclusion and secrecy is the even more secret and semi-autonomous advisory unit, DARPA, and within DARPA there is the elitist think tank Jason, named after the mythical hero in Jason and the Argonauts. According to Jacobsen, DARPA “is the most powerful and most productive military science agency in the world,” that “acts swiftly and with agility, free from standard bureaucracy or red tape.” Jacobsen goes on to explain in great detail how the Jason group, comprised of the crème de la crème of Western scientific/military knowhow, visualizes and then actualizes the development of breakthrough weapon systems. She describes it as “one of the most secret and esoteric, most powerful and consequential scientific advisory groups in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense.” If DARPA is the Pentagon’s brain, Jason is its prefrontal cortex.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Carl Sagan was one of a number of young civilian scientists that DARPA and Jason recruited for military related research and consultation, and, though his work remains classified, we can assume that he performed with his typical brilliance and high energy. Holding Secret and Top Secret clearances, Sagan would have been privy to national military secrets involving nuclear weapons, over-the-horizon armament systems, and exotic plans to weaponize space. At the same time that Sagan was on the Pentagon’s payroll, he was putting the final touches on his theory that, over geologic time, extraterrestrials have likely visited Earth on thousands of occasions, including, most recently, in the historical era.
NASA was created in 1960, two years after DARPA, presumably to conduct non-military space related research that would enable the United States to send astronauts to the Moon and back. It was to NASA that Carl Sagan turned for the financial assistance that enabled him to finish crafting the Stanford Paper, which he then advanced as a competitive search strategy to the Drake Model that recommended using radio telescopes to intercept alien electromagnetic signals.
As Sagan was soon to find out, NASA is not an independent decision-making body. Like every other government agency that conducts advanced scientific research, it owes primary allegiance to DARPA, Jason, and the Department of Defense. An analogy of what NASA is like would be the Moon: It has a bright side that is plainly visible, and a dark side that can’t be seen. Those of us in the public are permitted to see NASA’s bright side, with smiling astronauts doing somersaults in zero gravity and stunning photographs of distant stars, constellations, planets, and moons. We are not allowed to look into NASA’s dark side, into its secret military related research.
The reality is that behind everything NASA does, including its smiling astronauts and breathtaking photography, is a military component that, according to Jacobsen, ensures that “DARPA technology is ten to twenty years ahead of the technology in the public domain.”
In this sense, NASA is no different than “hundreds of research projects—involving tens of thousands of scientists and engineers working inside national laboratories and defense contractor facilities, and university laboratories—all across America and overseas.” NASA is simply one of many scientific agencies contracted by the DOD to conduct specialized research that DARPA and Jason use to develop highly classified advanced weapons systems designed to keep the United States and the West decades ahead of their enemies.
In 1964, the Drake Model had the advantage of being militarily useful. It advanced new applications for radio telescopes and involved code identification and decryption, assets that could be mined by the Pentagon. Plus, while monitoring space for alien signals, SETI’s radio telescopes could, and did, intercept communications generated by Russian satellites and aircraft. Under the guise of searching for alien radio signals, it had the ability to spy on our terrestrial enemies. In the heat of the Cold War, radio telescope SETI was considered a valued addition to American intelligence services.
Sagan Model Deficiencies
The Sagan Model of ancient alienism had no equivalent assets, nothing that would be of potential benefit to the Pentagon. Still, Sagan was hopeful and confident that NASA would approve and support his search plan. Besides having been funded by NASA and being scientifically robust, Sagan’s proposal related directly to the two most important questions any human can ask: Are we alone in the Universe, and, if we have company, have we been visited?
When NASA accepted the Drake Model and rejected his search plan, Carl Sagan had to have been crushed beyond words. Through his involvement with DARPA, he would have immediately known why his proposal to establish an alternative SETI had been turned down. It had nothing to do with scientific incompetence or conceptual flaws. It was for one simple reason: Ancient manuscripts can’t be weaponized.
It cannot be emphasized enough that Carl Sagan’s singular mission in life was to make the greatest discovery in the history of science—to be the first to prove the existence of advanced extraterrestrials. His entire life and academic preparation were all geared to achieving this one goal, and he was absolutely confident that his ancient alien theory put him on a fast track to success. He knew two things from the beginning: (1) that the radio telescope experiment would end in failure, and (2) that if there were long-lived advanced alien civilizations anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy, there was no way that at least some of them would not have been to Earth.
During the 1980 American boycott of the Russian Summer Olympics under President Jimmy Carter, there were U.S. athletes who had trained all their lives to compete in that one glorious spectacle, and then, through no fault of their own, were suddenly denied that opportunity for reasons having nothing to do with sport. Multiply their disappointment a thousand times over and you can perhaps begin to understand why, soon after NASA rejected his model for bogus reasons, Sagan cut ties with the military, surrendered his Secret clearances, and became an anti-war activist.
Unfortunately for Sagan, in the intelligence services one cannot surrender a Top Secret clearance, walk away, and pretend that nothing happened. The slate can never be totally wiped clean. It was the height of the Cold War. Washington and the military were rife with foreign spies. The Soviet Union had successfully stolen our nuclear secrets and, in 1957, launched the Sputnik satellite with a rocket that could just as easily have nuked New York or Washington, DC. American fear and paranoia were palpable. Overnight, Sagan went from being one of DARPA’s bright young superstars to living in constant danger of being accused of treason and espionage. It was, after all, no secret that bitter and disgruntled scientists were fertile ground for enemy recruitment operatives.
Sagan had been a left-leaning Democrat before this incident, which put him at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the hyper-patriotic, super-conservative Republican types that filled the Pentagon. On top of that, he was the Jewish son of Russian immigrants, and was fond of collaborating with Russian scientists and academics. It was a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy, in his efforts to find and root out the Communists that he imagined were hiding behind every rock, was running roughshod over constitutional privacy rights. It is safe to assume that Sagan was fully aware that he was under constant high surveillance. For the next 30 years of his life, the hotel rooms he stayed in would have been bugged, his phone tapped, his travels monitored, and his speeches and writings carefully analyzed for any sign that he had become a Communist informant.
Think of this personal ordeal as a kind of slow assassination: the constant pressure and stress of knowing that he dare not tell anyone, not his family nor closest friends, about what he knew about DARPA, and being aware that he was being watched. Besides having to constantly look over his shoulder, the bitterness Sagan would have felt against a military-industrial complex that had cavalierly dismissed his most cherished research project as being outside its sphere of interest had to gnaw at his soul. But is there a more sinister element to this story? Is it possible that Sagan contracted cancer after being intentionally exposed to a radioactive substance?
A Timely Death
Sagan’s death closely resembled that of fellow American scientist John von Neumann. Both died unexpectedly and relatively young of cancer (von Neumann in 1957 at the age of 54, Sagan in 1996 at 62). The prevailing theory is that von Neumann contracted his cancer after having accidentally ingested a small amount of plutonium at Los Alamos while working on the development of the atomic bomb. DARPA, always quick to seize upon a new opportunity, and with ready access to radioactive material, saw in von Neumann’s death a brilliant way to wage stealth warfare on a personal scale without fear of being accused of murder. By the 1990s, clandestine assassination through radioactive exposure had become so perfected that numerous nations had developed the ability to kill in this manner. A recent incident occurred in 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko, a top-tier Russian intelligence officer who had defected to England, died by exposure to radioactive polonium 210 that had been dumped in his tea. Afterward, a British inquiry placed the blame directly on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Let me be clear: I have no direct evidence that Carl Sagan was assassinated by the Pentagon. But it is well known that one of the things that can cause myelodysplasia, the rare disease he succumbed to, is exposure to radioactivity. Whatever the cause of Sagan’s cancer, there is no denying that his death was an extremely fortuitous event for the Pentagon. By 1990, it was done with the radio telescope experiment. It had long before gleaned all the military-related information it could from the Drake Model and was ready to move on. Frank Drake and SETI director Jill Tarter were notified that if an alien signal wasn’t intercepted by the year 2000, the experiment would be abandoned. Frank Drake, with obvious anxiety, predicted that contact would be made by the turn of the millennium. It didn’t happen.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty that bans the use of nuclear weapons in space does not prevent the development of non-nuclear armament systems. Whether the enemy is Russia or China, DARPA has always been determined to hold the high ground in the space arms race. At the turn of the century, the next step in the militarization of space was to colonize Mars, and there was— and still is—an open question about who will get there first. Will it be China, an aggressive new challenger for global military superiority, or America and the West? DARPA knew in 1990 that the technology to reach Mars was already on the shelf. It was just a matter of convincing the politicians and the public to finance the venture as a necessary scientific endeavor, and toward that end the NASA public relations department has shifted into high gear. The sales pitch to colonize Mars, presumably for peaceful scientific purposes, continues to build.
But as early as 1990, DARPA was already thinking beyond Mars. It had its sights set on the next big challenge: to win and hold the ultimate military high ground by developing interstellar spaceflight capability. The SETI program was one obstacle to its plan because it was premised on the view that interstellar spaceflight was impossible. With SETI on its way out, DARPA could put that concern aside. This left one remaining barrier: Carl Sagan.
The Sagan Model of ancient alienism is premised on interstellar spaceflight, which is presumably why it was rejected in 1964. If NASA, with DARPA backing, were to all of a sudden begin building a starship, the grounds for that rejection would be eliminated, leaving Sagan free to once again make his case that Earth is a visited planet. That is precisely what Sagan had in mind, only this time he would do it in public. With his charming and persuasive personality, it is highly likely that he would have succeeded in wresting ancient alienism away from the tabloid shysters and have it recognized as an academically and scientifically legitimate field of research. After all, if NASA were to begin building a spacecraft that can go to the stars, Sagan’s prediction that long-lived advanced alien civilizations have been exploring the galaxy for thousands or millions of years would almost have to be true. How could it not be? And, if that were true, it would stand to reason that Earth has been visited. As long as Carl Sagan was alive, Pentagon plans to enlist private contractors to begin actively working at building a starship were at a standstill.
In 1994 Sagan was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, a rare blood disorder and a precursor to leukemia. Two years later he was dead, and DARPA immediately began implementing its plan to build a starship. A coincidence?
One thing about scientists is that they tend to be deeply skeptical of coincidences. Was it only a coincidence that SETI’s demise, Carl Sagan’s death, and the DARPA initiative to build an interstellar starship all happened within a decade? Yes, it’s certainly possible, but holding out a healthy suspicion that these three extraordinary events may be related doesn’t seem at all farfetched. Unfortunately, the Pentagon is such a locked-down institution that the answers to this uncomfortable question may never be found.
By 1994, Sagan had more than 30 years to build on the model he developed in 1962. What new arguments would he have brought to bear and what new evidence would he have produced that would have added even more weight to his already-imposing Stanford Paper? Equally significant, his was a unique voice in the scientific world, reaching across continents and slicing through ideologies. His platform was all of humanity—the human species. He had the singular ability to sway public opinion on the broadest scale. He didn’t have bombs or guns, but he was a master of the public appearance and wielded the power of the pen as few other scientists could do.
In 1990, Sagan was mature, famous, worldly wise, and ready to take his case for science-based ancient alienism to the masses.
Now that NASA, with DARPA backing, is building a starship, the pretense used by NASA in 1964 to reject the Sagan Model—that interstellar spaceflight is impossible—has been exposed as a blatant lie. As early as the late 1950s, famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was predicting that man’s ultimately destiny would be to explore the stars. Science fiction writers of the time, amazingly reliable precursors of future technology, had long been weaving stories involving interstellar space travel. All of this leaves me to believe that DARPA and NASA leadership knew from the beginning that Carl Sagan was on the mark when he predicted that humans would conquer interstellar space within the next few centuries. NASA’s reason for rejecting the Sagan Model of ancient alienism—that interstellar spaceflight is technologically unachievable—was clearly based on lies and deceit.
In chronicling his life, recent Sagan biographers have walked an uncritical and, unfortunately, well-traveled road, buying into a standard narrative that completely ignores Sagan’s commitment to ancient alienism. Throughout this book, I have been introducing direct and circumstantial evidence that, in 1964, NASA implemented a plan that was hatched in the Pentagon to suppress the Stanford Paper and cover up the fact that Carl Sagan believed in ancient aliens. It is tragic that Sagan died before he had a chance to tell the world about his belief in ancient aliens and about a search strategy designed to find direct evidence in ancient manuscripts that Earth is a visited planet.
In the early 1990s, Carl Sagan was no longer a young and unknown astronomer. He was the most popular and trusted scientist in the world, and he was ready to break the shackles of silence that for 30 years had kept his ancient alien research in the dark. He knew that he could take his argument and evidence directly to the masses and convince them that advanced aliens, if they exist, could easily have reached Earth. In preparation for his new venture Sagan began writing his second scientific paper on the subject, titled “On the Rarity of Long-Lived Non-Spacefaring Galactic Civilizations.” He passed away before its completion.
As the world’s best-known scientist and a global celebrity, Sagan could command the attention of international media on a moment’s notice. If he were to appear on Sixty Minutes or Today, and disclose that he was a lifelong ancient alien theorist and that he was certain that extraterrestrials have been to Earth, the world would have gone ballistic with excitement. From New York City to Timbuktu, the news would have made headlines.
After allowing an appropriate time for mourning, and, more important, for people to begin to forget about Sagan’s profound influence, NASA, with DARPA backing, quietly launched two competing starship initiatives. One was Icarus Interstellar and the other the 100 Year Starship Project.
Icarus Interstellar and the 100 Year Starship Project
The Icarus Interstellar home page states:
Icarus—An International Organization Dedicated to Starship Research and Development. Project Icarus is a theoretical design study with the aim of designing a credible interstellar probe that will serve as a concept design for a potential unmanned mission that could be launched before the end of the 21st century. Icarus will utilize fusion based technology which would accelerate the spacecraft to approximately 10% of the speed of light.
Icarus Interstellar director and co-founder Dr. Richard Obousy previously worked for the UK Defense Evaluation and Research Agency; the other co-founder, and president, Dr. Andreas Tziolas, worked at the Johnson Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a leading defense contractor. Projects that Icarus is currently working on that are described on its Website are named Voyager, Helius, Tin Tin, Forward, XP4, Bitfrost, Hyperion, and Persephone. For a more comprehensive understanding of Icarus Interstellar, I urge readers to go to the Website.
With its motto “Exploring the Future of Space Travel,” the 100 Year Starship Project “was created by DARPA in partnership with the NASA Ames Research Center to explore the next generation technologies needed for long distance manned space travel.” It lists the following five factors as high-level motivations for the exploration of distant space:
• Human survival: ideas related to creating a legacy for the human species, backing up the Earth’s biosphere, and enabling long-term survival in the face of catastrophic disasters on Earth.
• Contact with other life: find answers to whether there is other life in the universe, whether “intelligent” life exists elsewhere in the galaxy, and, at a basic level, whether we are alone in the universe.
• Evolution of the human species: exploration as a human imperative, expansion of human understanding and consciousness through space exploration.
• Scientific discovery: breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the material universe, a pursuit for knowledge.
• Belief and faith: a search for God or the Divine, a need to explore beyond Earth’s atmosphere as a part of natural theology or as found through religious revelation.
All of this sounds deeply aspirational, but what it doesn’t divulge is that the core goal of the Starship Project is to develop Star Wars– type spacecraft and weapon systems capable of knocking the shit out of any nation crazy enough to take on the United States in an all-out war.
The launch of this initiative was announced in 2010 by retired Brigadier General Peter “Pete” Worden, described as “an expert on space issues, both civil and military.”
Starship Project’s program manager, Paul Eremenko, previously worked for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, which was “responsible for drones, robotics, X-planes, and satellite programs. He developed and managed projects to revolutionize design and manufacture of complex military systems (such as vehicles and aircraft) called Adaptive Vehicle Make, the System F6 fractionated spacecraft program, and the 100 Year Starship15 [emphasis added].”
Note that in this bio, the 100 Year Starship Project is specifically designated a “complex military system.” This leaves no doubt what the project is about, and it’s not altruistic peace-loving science.
True to the Pentagon’s strategy of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public to get what it wants, both organizations laud the nobility of conducting groundbreaking space research for the many peaceful benefits that would likely accrue to humankind. Neither site says anything about what they are really about, which is to conquer, control, and defend space by developing new ways to kill and destroy with mind-boggling proficiency.
Carl Sagan knew the truth about the DARPA/NASA relationship—that it’s not about white turtle doves and flowers in the hair. Quite the opposite: It’s about starships, death rays, and the next generation of stealth technology. I’m convinced that Sagan’s goal before he died under mysterious circumstances was to launch a personal campaign to preempt DARPA’s plan to weaponize interstellar space. If Sagan had announced to the world that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials who want our attention and resources focused on world peace and the healing our broken planet, and not on building bigger and more costly weapon systems, I believe that the public would have listened with rapt interest and approval. Had he continued living, Sagan might well have succeeded in undermining secret military plans to siphon hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars out of the national treasury, money that it must have to build exotic interstellar weapon systems under the guise of scientific exploration.
In what would have been a major embarrassment for NASA, a high-profile rollout of Sagan’s ancient alien theory would have likely incriminated the individuals and organizations responsible for 30 years of suppression and cover-up of his model of ancient alienism. Investigators would have had a field day asking Sagan why his original research had been rejected. That, in turn, would have created an avalanche of inquiries, formal and informal, that would have led to the doors of the Pentagon. A lot of important people would have been implicated, many of whom were still alive.
The Icarus Interstellar and the 100 Year Starship Project Websites feature dozens of technical papers that are available to anyone, including the Chinese and Russians. Knowing how DARPA operates, it knew when it created these sites that everything on them is information the enemies of the West already have. What is posted is merely the unclassified tip of an enormous iceberg. Beneath the surface and safely out of sight, it is almost certain that DARPA and its secret research facilities have successfully solved the technological challenges of interstellar propulsion systems and have developed the capacity to launch a manned interstellar craft from Mars soon after the red planet is colonized. I believe the DARPA plan is for low-gravity Mars to become a military base, a kind of mothership, for the launching of manned and unmanned interstellar spacecraft. Of course the Chinese know this, which is why they have their own version of DARPA and NASA, and why they have built the world’s largest radio telescope—that, in part, they say, is to “monitor” Mars and asteroids as well as to detect possible alien signals. The Chinese are well aware of Pentagon intentions. Largely out of public view, and unknown even to most politicians, the interstellar space race has been in full swing for more than two decades.
To some Pentagon elites, the peace-loving Carl Sagan was a traitor, which is why his name doesn’t appear in either the Icarus Interstellar or the 100 Year Starship Website. The question of what caused Carl Sagan’s death may be open to debate, but what is not open to debate is that Sagan stood in opposition to longterm DARPA/NASA goals. Though the circumstances surrounding Sagan’s death raise suspicions, I don’t believe that DARPA, the dark side of the Moon, is inherently evil. The issue I have, and that Sagan had, is that it’s morally wrong for an organization like NASA to present itself to Americans and to the world as a benign, science-loving organization that will leave no stone unturned in its quest to find evidence of extraterrestrial existence—and then limit itself only to research that has potential military application. That, I think most would agree, is a fundamental violation of both the spirit and the letter of the scientific enterprise. What does it say about the United States as a civilization when innovative theories and research papers accepted for analysis by our leading scientific organizations are limited to only those that are applicable to death and destruction?
Now that the United States is well on its way to achieving interstellar spaceflight capacity, how can any rational person still say that it’s impossible? They can’t. The concept of interstellar spaceflight must be scientifically sound and achievable, even for a young emerging species like our own. This means that the Sagan Model, as articulated in the Stanford Paper, is also scientifically sound and achievable.
Isn’t it odd that those who argue against interstellar spaceflight never mention Icarus Interstellar or the 100 Year Starship Project? Is it possible that they don’t know? Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they have been innocently ignorant. But now that they know, they have no excuse. They can go to the Websites of both organizations and see the facts for themselves. If they have even a scintilla of intelligence and common sense, they have to concede. Unless they are prepared to be labeled as luddites, those who still deny interstellar spaceflight can’t keep living in a make believe world.
But as the exciting new prospect of human interstellar spaceflight in the not-so-distant future sets in, some mending and repair work are to be done concerning the past. The pain and suffering that Carl Sagan endured through most of his adult life as a result of his belief in the inevitability of interstellar spaceflight needs to be acknowledged, and a formal apology by NASA and SETI to the Sagan family is in order. Beyond that, NASA and SETI need to issue apologies to the world for not allowing a scientifically legitimate Earth-based ETI search strategy to compete against the Drake Model, or, for that matter, the von Däniken Model.
Like Sagan, I harbor tremendous concerns about Pentagon intentions concerning outer space and interstellar spaceflight. As long as the military is involved, I see no way for this to end well. Fortunately, it is not too late to do something, but, the fact is, the horse is already out of the barn. It will take a concerted action by people all around the globe to keep these starship initiatives from becoming reality.
SETI now admits that it is highly probable that aliens engage in star travel, just as Sagan surmised. But its long denial of interstellar spaceflight throughout Sagan’s 40-year career can’t just be swept under the carpet. In my opinion, this was more than a scientific blunder: It was a conspiratorial act that impacted Carl Sagan’s hopes and dreams. In this chapter I examine in more detail the tremendous repercussions of NASA’s inexcusable violation of Carl Sagan’s rights and privileges as a professional scientist.
Frank Drake and other SETI pioneers assumed, in error, that for alien interstellar travel to work, their spacecraft would have to attain velocities that approached the speed of light, and, even then, reaching Earth would take longer than normal life spans. In the judgment of these authorities, this made interstellar spaceflight impossible. Albert Einstein and his cosmic speed limit, they insisted, was the final nail in the coffin of Sagan’s ancient alien theory.
They were wrong.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and, in looking back, it seems strange that smart individuals such as Frank Drake were unable to understand that, with billions of years to work with, extraterrestrial civilizations could easily colonize the entire Milky Way Galaxy traveling at velocities even 1/100th of the speed of light. Enrico Fermi, one of history’s great mathematicians, was able to crunch the numbers on the back of an envelope. An alien visitation to Earth was such an obvious outcome that when he posed his famous question—Where is everyone?—to a gaggle of fellow scientists, all of them immediately understood and appreciated the gravity of what he was saying.
So how is it possible that it has taken SETI scientists a half century to figure it out?
This appears to be more about conspiracy than credible science. Is it reasonable to think that SETI scientists were so riveted on radio telescopes, so certain that they would work, so thrilled with the anticipation that they would be the ones who would make the greatest scientific discovery in human history, that they just innocently overlooked the common sense logic that Sagan articulated so well in his Stanford Paper? I don’t think so.
Fermi understood it, Sagan understood it, Russian astrophysicists understood it. In a 14-billion-year-old Universe, aliens even a mere 10 million years ahead of us would have the entire Galaxy mapped and explored, and every planet that was amenable to life, including ours, visited numerous times. Though it may involve rockets, it’s not rocket science.
The stunning thing is that it appears that SETI scientists weren’t even willing to work through the math. Without debate, they drew a line in the sand and pronounced with imperialist authority the impossibility of star travel. For the next 50 years this flawed conclusion held the lofty status of an immutable scientific principle. No interstellar travel, ever? It sounded wrong to Sagan 50 years ago and it still sounds wrong today. Like a Papal Bull from the Dark Ages, or a magisterial decree from the Flat Earth Society, the claim that alien interstellar spaceflight is a scientific impossibility begged to be challenged. Sagan was the only American astronomer brave enough to do it, and he paid a heavy price for his audacity.
Challenging the Status Quo
Public esteem for astronomers and rocket scientists in the 1960s was extremely high. Most of us living back then put them on par with clergy and doctors. We considered them so smart that challenging them would never enter our minds. When they spoke, it was with mathematical precision and scientific certainty. At the same time, scientists were equating people who believed in past alien visitations with weird religious cults like Scientology. Not surprising, the public was quick to side with mainstream astronomers and agree that alien star travel was impossible.
But Carl Sagan, a highly talented and supremely confident scientist, had no problem challenging conventional scientific wisdom. In the Stanford Paper, he informed NASA that any reasonably advanced extraterrestrials could get to Earth and that there was compelling historical evidence that they have been to Earth. NASA, the people who held the purse strings, were listening to Sagan in one ear, but in the other ear they were hearing testimony from senior astronomers that interstellar spaceflight was such a ridiculous notion that it wasn’t even worth discussing. In what now appears to be an act driven by conspiratorial intent, NASA quietly pulled the plug on the Sagan Model and went exclusively with the Drake Model and radio telescopes.
The Stanford Paper is one of the great documents in scientific history, but, in retrospect, it got Sagan into a lot of trouble. By writing what he did, when he did, he managed to piss off just about every living individual involved in the space sciences. In vintage Carl Sagan fashion, he blurted out a bold, new theory that was the antithesis of status quo thinking, without bothering to filter his ideas through established scientific channels. Sagan probably knew his theory would be rejected, so why bother? He was apparently hoping that there were individuals within NASA who were independent and unbiased enough to figure out that he was right and that the mainstream was wrong. There may indeed have been some of these kinds of people at NASA, but, in the end, their voices were muzzled and the mainstream conformists won.
Sagan’s problem was that what he wrote wasn’t bad science, it was bad timing. The Stanford Paper passed a peer review and an editorial review, and anyone who reads it carefully will see that it makes damned good sense. But Sagan, though everyone agreed that he was scientifically brilliant, was at that time young and politically naïve, and terribly impatient with the intolerably long vetting process that is generally the norm in Western science. He had little respect for the system, and—let’s face it—in the long run the system usually wins.
What did Sagan write that got everyone so upset? Following is a laundry list of items in the Stanford Paper that challenged conventional thinking. Take your pick.
1. He openly criticized a radio telescope search.
2. He insisted that extraterrestrials have mastered interstellar spaceflight.
3. He posited that aliens have visited Earth in historical times.
4. He gives scientific credibility to the Bible.
5. He collaborated with Russian scientists at the height of the Cold War.
6. By advocating interstellar spaceflight, he fueled the UFO frenzy.
7. He presented a plan to build spaceships that could travel to the stars.
8. He acknowledged the power of Fermi’s Paradox.
Any one of these things would have gotten Sagan in trouble, but he managed to put them all into a single package. No wonder he was attacked by fellow scientists as a flake and a kook. Leading figures high in the NASA hierarchy who thought Sagan was crazy for believing in interstellar spaceflight and ancient aliens. Based on that position, what were the chances that NASA would ever change its mind about interstellar spaceflight? It would have taken a miracle, but—guess what—that miracle happened. NASA now not only concedes, albeit ever so quietly, that it’s possible that advanced aliens engage in star travel, it has its own interstellar starship development program. Unfortunately, this concession and these developments came too late for Sagan.
Science doesn’t tolerate fools and lunatics, but it does occasionally reward innovation and original thinking. Allowing room for new ideas that challenge the status quo is an integral part of how modern science works. Otherwise it risks becoming the very thing that it claims to oppose: a mono-cultural, iron-fisted enterprise that isn’t willing to compete against visionaries who dare challenge conventional thinking. Rejecting a credible search strategy because it too closely resembles something going on in the world of pseudoscience is to politicize the scientific method, and that is never a good thing. How NASA treated Carl Sagan and his model of ancient alienism, with so much disrespect, is the low point in its 60-plus-year history.
But Sagan had another problem to deal with: He was a professional astronomer, and what he was proposing in his Stanford Paper was not an astronomy solution. It had more to do with archeology, ethnology, anthropology, history, linguistics, and even religion. Unfortunately, there was no one in any of those softer disciplines in the least bit interested in proving that extraterrestrials were on Earth interacting with the Sumerians, helping them build the world’s first civilization. NASA and SETI East held the strategic high ground on this one. They insisted that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence had to be led by astronomers and needed to be by radio telescopes only. If archeologists wanted to look for an alien signal in ancient manuscripts (and none did), so be it. But for an up-and-coming astronomer like Carl Sagan to espouse a theory that was so completely outside his chosen discipline was intolerable. Sagan may have been the beneficiary of a cross-disciplinary education, but he would have to make up his mind: Choose one or the other. He could opt for radio telescopes and no interstellar spaceflight, and remain a respected member of the astronomy community, or he could believe in ancient aliens, study ancient manuscripts, and be booted out. But under no circumstances would he be allowed to do both. Sagan finally relented, but never 100 percent. In the face of what he knew would be fierce and sustained opposition from his peers within the fledgling SETI enterprise, he persisted in advocating for an alternative search strategy that was premised on interstellar travel and past alien visitations—and if he had not been such a dynamic and influential personality, his stubbornness would likely have cost him his career.
Thanks to international media attention, SETI and the radio telescope search got off to a fast start. But to sustain the momentum, it needed an articulate and charismatic spokesman, and Sagan was clearly their man. Most SETI scientists were awkward and uncomfortable in front of a camera and a crowd, whereas Sagan, with his good looks and enchanting conversational style, seemed born to be a media star.
SETI and Sagan found themselves at a crossroads. Because of the harsh manner in which the Stanford Paper got rejected, their relationship could easily have turned into a circular firing squad. But in the end, Sagan, under threat of losing his standing in the space sciences community, agreed, under duress, to put his ancient alien theory aside and become a team player. He quickly became SETI’s poster child, and he performed with his typical brilliance. Meanwhile, the Stanford Paper quietly drifted off into the dark night of anonymity, where, despite SETI’s recent change of mind about interstellar spaceflight, it remains to this day an all-but-forgotten document.
Sagan went on to become the spokesman for NASA and SETI, but, like a mischievous teenager, he always looking for ways to tweak the nose of the establishment. He was constantly and surreptitiously bringing up the possibility of alien interstellar spaceflight whenever he had the opportunity. He quietly advocated for it in almost all of his books, and in his famous Cosmos series, he states: “Every star may be a sun to someone. Within a galaxy are stars and worlds and, it may be, a proliferation of living things, and intelligent beings and spacefaring civilizations.”
In his bestselling novel, Contact, Sagan has both search strategies represented. An alien signal is found using radio telescopes, but the message that was encrypted into the signal is a blueprint for how to build a machine that allows Ellie, the heroine, to travel to the stars using wormholes and time dilation. Sagan’s lifelong obsession with interstellar travel had to have driven NASA crazy.
This raises the question: Are there still individuals within NASA and SETI who still think that alien interstellar spaceflight is a ridiculous idea not worth considering? Are there still NASA scientists who openly deny the possibility that extraterrestrials could reach Earth? Are there still people of influence within NASA who would insist that the Sagan Model of ancient alienism should not be revisited under any circumstances? These are disturbing thoughts. Unfortunately, there is evidence of an influential clique within NASA that doesn’t want to engage the Stanford Paper or to own up to an ongoing conspiracy against Carl Sagan. They take comfort in assuming that the skeletons of the past are securely tucked away in the closet where they can’t be seen. They don’t want the door opened for fear the bones might fall out and they will be implicated for being part of a massive and long-running cover-up. This book shines a light on what some at NASA desperately don’t want you to know.
Yet, surely unintentionally, NASA has contributed in significant ways to what will hopefully be the eventual formal recognition of Sagan’s research on ancient alienism and the acceptance of the Stanford Paper into its hallowed sphere of interest. In recent years, NASA and SETI have made three major contributions to Carl Sagan’s ancient alien theory:
1. They have scientifically engaged the deeper implications of Fermi’s Paradox.
2. They have officially reversed their positions on alien interstellar spaceflight.
3. They have not formally denied that Carl Sagan was an ancient alien theorist, or denied the existence of the Stanford Paper.
The theory that Carl Sagan developed in 1962 is at last out in the open where it belongs—where it can be critiqued by NASA scientists, SETI theorists, historians, theologians, anthropologists, archeologists and, perhaps most important, by citizen scientists. It’s impossible for anyone to appreciate or understand who Carl Sagan was as a human being and as a scientist without being aware of his Stanford Paper, and when, how, and why it was written. The contents of that extraordinary product shaped and molded thoughts and convictions that Sagan would carry throughout his life: bold new ideas that he was about to take public, until his life was snuffed out by a rare disease.
Lest anyone is still thinking that Carl Sagan’s belief in interstellar spaceflight and ancient alien visitations were nothing more than the passing fancy of a youthful scientist who, like a defiant teenager, wanted to be different just to be different, I offer the following fascinating exchange between Sagan biographer Keay Davidson and NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, which occurred one year after Sagan’s death, as recorded in Carl Sagan, A Life. Goldin made a passing comment to Davidson that he was “look[ing] into the feasibility of interstellar robotic missions”, an idea he attributed to reading Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot—but interstellar travel still wasn’t being considered by NASA administrators.
A couple of things jump off the pages of these incredible exchanges. One is that in 1997, NASA, through the voice of administrator Dan Goldin, expressed a belief in the possibility of future star travel, and SETI, through scientist Paul Horowitz, called his statement nonsense. For the record, Horowitz lost and Goldin won. Notwithstanding Horowitz’s vitriolic reaction, SETI’s Website now features the essay on Fermi’s Paradox that admits to the plausibility of alien interstellar spaceflight, and NASA, with backing from the Pentagon, is working on building a starship. If, in a century or so, humans will be doing it, we can be sure that aliens have been doing it for a long, long time, which means that there is a high probability that Sagan was right about past alien visitations.
The dots between interstellar spaceflight and ancient alienism are now so close together that they almost touch, but they still need to be officially connected. Who among current mainstream scientists will have the courage to step forward and complete the process? Where are the men and women who will bring redemption and vindication to Carl Sagan?
To illustrate how important it is to the Pentagon to condition the public into accepting interstellar spaceflight as a natural and inevitable step in technological progress, my local small town paper, the Bend Bulletin, ran an article from the Washington Post, written by Dominic Basulto, about a major breakthrough in quantum computing developed by Google and NASA. Close to being perfected, this quantum computer will be 100 million times faster than any existing computers. In the past, the cited applications for such major advances in computer capability would have been long-range weather forecasting, analyzing global economic trends, and analyzing similar complex problems. But in this article, dated December 29, 2015, the potential application was to “optimize the flight trajectories of interstellar space missions.” No bold letters, no headlines, just a ho-hum, matter-of-fact allusion to what NASA, for 50 years, had insisted was impossible. Why is NASA so certain that it can safely allude to interstellar spaceflight without raising any eyebrows? Because Carl Sagan is dead.
Exhibit number two: An even more recent article written by Rachel Feltman of the Washington Post begins as follows: “If we want to find intelligent aliens with advanced space-faring civilizations, it would make sense for us to start in densest stellar neighborhoods.”
“Advanced space-faring civilizations”? This verbiage, which has been lifted right out of the Carl Sagan playbook, would never have appeared in family newspapers just a few years ago. And the author’s premise begs to be challenged. If advanced alien civilizations are “space-faring,” wouldn’t it make more sense to look for evidence that they have been to Earth than to assume that a primitive non-spacefaring civilization like ourselves needs to find their home planet to prove they exist?
NASA desperately needs to hold a major conference on alien interstellar spaceflight and come clean on everything. SETI’s old guard, particularly Frank Drake, needs to answer the question: Are they still absolutely certain that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations have not mastered the ability to physically explore our galaxy— when we have our own starship development program? Yes or no?
Frank Drake and other key leaders in SETI know that this question is like the prisoner’s dilemma. If they answer “yes,” they are identifying themselves as Luddites and obstructionists who need to resign and get out of the way. Denial of alien interstellar spaceflight is no longer compatible with reality or mainstream scientific thought, which is that the twin barriers of vast distance and Einstein’s cosmic speed limit can be mitigated by technological progress and vast amounts of time.
If they think alien interstellar spaceflight is impossible, they need to explain how, in a 14-billion-year-old Universe, spacefaring extraterrestrials could not have evolved billions of years ago—when Earth has produced modern humans in a mere 4.5 billion years.
If they think alien interstellar spaceflight is impossible, they need to explain what, specifically, will prevent the human species from traveling to the stars in search of a new home as our Sun begins to die out and our solar system grows cold and lifeless.
If they think alien interstellar spaceflight is impossible, they need to explain why they have expressed in writing a willingness to test concrete evidence like a landing light that may have fallen off an alien spacecraft, but refuse to test empirical evidence related to an ancient alien theory crafted by Carl Sagan. If interstellar spaceflight is impossible, even for aliens, why not place a blanket moratorium on the testing of all purported evidence of alien visitations?
If they think alien interstellar spaceflight is impossible, they need to explain away Fermi’s Paradox to the extent that it can be intellectually and scientifically abandoned. Why, after more than 60 years since it was first uttered, is SETI openly admitting that it’s still relevant? If they think alien interstellar spaceflight is impossible, they need to explain why they are not publicly and aggressively opposing NASA for launching a starship development program. If they are certain that the science is on their side, why are they so quiet and defensive? Why aren’t they vigorously trying to purge the space community of individuals like exoplanetary scientist Sara Seager, who has stated, “Could a civilization, if they wanted to, marshal their resources to go to the nearest stars? I think that is within our reach.”
Why aren’t Frank Drake and others in SETI calling for her ouster? Why isn’t she being condemned for scientific heresy? The answer is that belief in the possibility of both alien and human interstellar spaceflight among SETI and NASA scientists has metastasized to the point where it is now the dominant, if not official, position. Those who still deny star travel tend to be old and long past their prime. The young guns at NASA, whether they realize it or not, are siding with Carl Sagan.
SETI and NASA need to hold a summit meeting to clear the air, once and for all, about their position on alien interstellar spaceflight and the theoretical possibility of past alien visitations to Earth. One day we hear from someone at NASA that it’s possible, the next day we hear from a SETI scientist that it’s impossible. It has to be one or the other, it can’t be both. So which is it? Please tell us. I would love to see Sara Seager and Frank Drake openly debate the following question in a public forum: Allowing a few more centuries of continued human development in science and technology, could we humans one day travel to the stars? If this were to happen, I would wager that Seager would win, hands down.
In writings on the subject, I routinely come across estimates that there may be alien civilizations one million years ahead of us in science and technology. In fact, the Universe is old enough and the Earth is young enough that their civilizations could easily be one billion or more years older than ours. Either way, it’s impossible for any human to conceive of what such beings might be like or capable of doing.
For the sake of the discussion, let’s narrow the gap, by a lot. Let’s say that aliens are only one thousand years into the Scientific Age, which, on the cosmic time clock, is comparable to about one minute out of a year. Humans have been in the Scientific Age for 400 years, so, under this scenario, aliens would have a 600-year head start on us in science and technology. The only way to imagine the science and technology that aliens six centuries more advanced than us might have is compare the rate of scientific progress humans have made in four centuries against what we might be capable of accomplishing in the next 600 years. What new knowledge will humans have about the nature and fundamental principles of the Universe in the year 2616? What technological breakthroughs will have been achieved? How many fundamental paradigm shifts will occur between now and then? How many Newtons and Einsteins and Sagans will have been born who will shake the foundations of established science and propel our species in new directions?
Now, let’s do something that is extremely insignificant on the cosmic scale. Let’s give the extraterrestrials another minute by contemplating what their science and technology might be like if they were 1,600 years ahead of us rather than 600 years ahead of us. What might they accomplish with that additional 1,000 years? Now, let’s extend that time to a mere 10,000 years, still 990,000 years short of a million. What would their science and technology be like then?
This is the essence of the Fermi Paradox. It’s simply coming to grips with the stunning implications of exponential advances in science that a long-lived alien civilization would be expected to achieve. Why is this fascinating debate not taking place, when it would obviously generate a huge amount of interest and inevitably produce good science?
There can be only one answer: If NASA and SETI openly admit the possibility of human interstellar spaceflight, then it is all but certain that advanced aliens have been to Earth, just as Carl Sagan hypothesized, and that would justify an all-out search for archeological and historical evidence that they were here. That, in turn, would deflect interest and resources away from NASA and divert them to institutions like the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, both of which have extensive knowledge and experience in the field of Sumerology. Sadly, in the current insular environment, asking NASA to put Sagan’s Stanford Paper on the table as an active area of interest would be comparable to asking the board of Coca-Cola to endorse Pepsi. Unless forced by intense and sustained public pressure, it’s not likely to happen.
Why are scientists like Frank Drake and David Morrison still hanging around, filling the power positions at SETI instead of retiring to the golf course and letting young blood take over? I think it’s because they are haunted by the ghost of Carl Sagan. They now know that they lost and that Sagan won; as they leave, new leadership and bold young scientists will come in and, despite the ongoing conspiracy to cover up Sagan’s beliefs and suppress his research, they will embrace the Stanford Paper and Sagan’s theory of ancient aliens as being fully compatible with the search for microbial life in the Universe.
How ironic that Dr. Morrison, who is outspoken about his conviction that interstellar spaceflight for both humans and aliens is impossible, is the director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, a division of SETI. Morrison, one of SETI’s elder statesmen, would likely be one who would join SETI chairman emeritus Frank Drake in calling Carl Sagan’s Stanford Paper “bad science.” They are among those at NASA responsible for keeping the Sagan Model of ancient alienism outside of the NASA perimeter.
The apparent absence of any dedicated thought at SETI on the subject of interstellar spaceflight, human or alien, suggests that it is absolutely impervious to the possibility that aliens have been to Earth. It is simply not on their radar screen, and it should be. In this 20th-year commemoration of Carl Sagan’s death, this muddled-headed environment, this division of opinion, is all the more reason for SETI to have an open and honest debate on the subject, all the more reason for NASA to reinstate the Sagan Model of ancient alienism as a theoretically viable possibility, and all the more reason to test evidence that appears to support that model.
In vetting the strength or weakness of competing theories, scientists sometimes find themselves as defendants, standing up for what they believe in, and sometimes as prosecutors, offering critical analysis of alternative models that they think are wrong. Carl Sagan’s theory was supposedly rejected on the basis that interstellar spaceflight, even by advanced aliens, was impossible. That position is no longer tenable now that NASA is actively involved in starship construction. It’s time for NASA to own up to the conspiracy against Carl Sagan, purge itself of antiquated thinking, and revisit the Sagan Model of ancient alienism.
In his Stanford Paper, Sagan indicated that he didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that the radio telescope experiment would work, and he has been proven right. In counterarguments, SETI pioneers like Frank Drake insisted that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of either humans or aliens ever developing the ability to physically explore the galaxy. Drake’s position now finds itself on shifting sand as more and more scientists are openly challenging that doctrine by voicing the opinion that humans in the not so-distant future will almost certainly develop the ability for star travel, and, if that’s the case, that aliens should have been doing it for a very long time.
NEXT: Chapter 7 Last Words