The Clinton Administration Considered Awarding Carl Sagan the Medal of Freedom

Efforts by officials to boost famous environmentalists and other “good dead” people, though, were unsuccessful.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
March 14, 2014, 9:39 a.m.

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.”

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