Carl Sagan’s Birthday is November 9th
If you are under thirty years old, the name Carl Sagan may not ring a bell. But if you watched the 1980 original Cosmos TV series hosted and co-written by Dr. Sagan, you would likely remember him as America’s premiere astronomer, astrophysicist and popular science author of the seventies, eighties and into the 1990’s. I met Dr. Sagan several years before his untimely death in 1996. One thing I’m pretty sure of, that meeting would never have happened if I didn’t have a camera with me.
In the mid-1980’s my wife, Joanne, made plans to attend a conference where Dr. Sagan was the keynote speaker. As a long-time Carl Sagan fan, I begged to tag along, Joanne agreed and we made our way to St. Louis. I was thrilled with the opportunity to hear Dr. Sagan speak. As it turned out, so were a couple thousand other people who got to the auditorium before us. We got in, but just barely. Our balcony seats were in the very last row.
Dr. Sagan spoke for about forty-five minutes. He told stories of NASA, how he helped Apollo astronauts prepare for extended space flight and, of course, the Cosmos as in the universe around us and his TV series. It was great.
After the talk most people filed out and headed to meetings. A few dozen moved to the edge of the stage where Dr. Sagan took questions. Joanne headed to her next meeting and I headed to the stage floor. It took several minutes, but I made it to the stage area where Dr. Sagan was still on the stage talking.
But, I was at the back of the pack, barely able to hear his comments. The crowd had grown in numbers and my prospects of getting closer were not likely to improve. To my right at the side of the theater, I spotted steps that led onto the stage and I got an idea. As I headed for the steps, I pulled my Minolta XD-11 from my camera bag. Bounding up the steps I flicked on the camera and walked out onto the stage. Just like I knew what I was doing.
At the center of the stage, crouched on one knee, was Dr. Sagan. I walked to within five feet of him and also dropped down. He looked at me, apparently thought nothing of it and continued his conversation with the people below us on the auditorium floor. From my new vantage point I could see and hear Dr. Sagan much better.
Unfortunately, the stage lights had been turned off, the auditorium lights were dim and my camera was loaded with Kodachrome 64 slide film. Not a good combination. I knew my prospects for a good picture in such low light were slim, so I faked it. I raised the camera to my eye, framed, focused, steadied the camera as best I could and began taking his picture. At any moment, I expected a beefy stage hand would grab me by the collar, haul me backstage and deposit me in a trash bin. It was a risk worth taking, because there I was on the stage with Carl Sagan.
To my surprise, nobody tried to haul me away. After about five minutes, a woman walked out on stage. She also ignored me and instead told Dr. Sagan it was time for him to leave. The crowd on the auditorium floor gave a collective groan as Sagan stood. He gave an apologetic shrug and turned to walk off stage… in my direction. I stood, began to walk with Dr. Sagan and asked him a question about his speech. Unbelievably, he gave me an answer. At the side of the stage a security person joined our walk. He directed Sagan, and me, out the stage door and into a hallway that led to Sagan’s car.
It was thirty feet or so down the hallway and I knew that short walk was all the time I had left. Quickly, I asked another question and Sagan gave me an answer. It was like we were two pals in a regular conversation. (I wish remembered my questions and his answers, but I have no recollection. I’m sure we were both great.)
A few steps from the door, I dropped my photojournalist shtick and blurted out how much I enjoyed his Cosmos TV show and books. Then, like the Sagan junkie I was, I pulled a small notebook from my back pocket, flipped it to a blank page and asked for his autograph. His escort, in full security mode, scowled.
Dr. Sagan stopped, signed the page, handed back my notebook, then reached out and shook my hand. The escort stepped ahead and opened the door to the outside. Sagan walked toward the door. Waived off by the security officer, I stopped. When Sagan reached the door, he turned back toward, raisied his hand said, “I wish you good luck.”
Those last seconds are crystal clear in my mind. The light in the hallway was much better than the light on the stage and there was Carl Sagan smiling and waving at me. A really good photographer would have seized the moment and snapped off a couple of shots. Instead, I smiled and waved back.
(I rummaged through several old photo boxes to find the “best” bad shot I took that day. Dr. Sagan’s autograph is framed and kept on the bookshelf next to my desk.)
November 5, 2015