Clinton administration officials considered awarding famed astronomer Carl Sagan the Presidential Medal of Freedom after his death in 1996, new documents reveal.
Sagan, who is famous for attempting to popularize science through movies, books, and television, had just been honored by NASA when the agency dubbed the Mars Rover landing spot as the Carl Sagan Memorial Station. White House staffers then talked about taking it a step further.
“I wonder if that boosts Carl Sagan postumously [sic] for a Medal of Freedom,” Shelly Fidler, the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, wrote in a 1997 email released Friday. “You know he was one of the very first to sound the warning on climate as well.”
She then tossed around a few other names for possible medal winners: Frank Sherwood Rowland, who discovered the hole in the ozone layer, and environmentalist Ansel Adams. But the White House was coming across a common problem.
“We’re having trouble thinking up great living people,” Fidler wrote to Todd Stern, an assistant to the president and staff secretary for the Clinton administration. “I guess that’s everyone’s affliction these days.”
Earlier in the email, Fidler called Adams “another good dead person” for the award.
Sagan didn’t end up winning the medal, but the idea does show that the Clinton administration was attempting to boost the profile of climate change and the environmental movement.
One of Sagan’s better-known contributions to space exploration happened in 1990, when he asked NASA to take what is now one of the most famous photos of Earth. The Voyager 1 spacecraft was leaving the solar system when NASA commanded it to turn around and take a photo. From 3.7 billion miles away, you can see a “pale blue dot,” Earth.
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world,” Sagan wrote in his book Pale Blue Dot. “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”