Cosmos creator Ann Druyan on being a big thinker for Nat Geo Channel's Mars

Contributed by
Jan 8, 2019, 11:00 AM EST (Updated)

When you have a show about mankind’s journey to the stars, it helps to get a thumbs-up from a woman who brought us the cosmos. That is the case with National Geographic Channel’s new scripted/documentary hybrid series Mars. Joining the scientists and science communicators lending support to Mars is Ann Druyan, the producer who created and co-wrote the both the 1980 documentary series Cosmos and its 2014 sequel.

Druyan, who married her Cosmos collaborator Carl Sagan, has won Emmy and Peabody awards and co-wrote a half dozen books with her late husband. She was also creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project and helped design those golden records on the side of Voyager 1 and 2. Druyan and Sagan likewise crafted the story outline for the 1997 film Contact, based on her husband’s novel (which was based on a screenplay written by the pair).

In short, Druyan is one of the more respected members of the science communication community. So her involvement with the Ron Howard/Brian Grazer-produced, Everado Gout-directed Mars is notable.

Within the series, Druyan -- along with astrophysicist Jedidah Isler, astronaut Mae Jemison, space journalist Leonard David, Space X founder Elon Musk, author Stephen Petranek (whose book How We’ll Live on Mars is as the source material for series) and more – is a voice from the past, as it were. As the scripted, science-based portions of the show plays out, revolving around the first humans arriving on Mars in 2033, these real-life big thinkers of 2016 expound on the settlers’ stories in documentary-style segments.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Druyan is not necessarily an ourtight proponent of this journey within the show; she voices concerns about the wealth associated with who goes into the stars, and what that means for those of us left on Earth.

I recently sat with Druyan to talk about this intriguing marriage of entertainment and science education, which premieres Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. In the following interview, we discuss her contribution, as well as her nuanced opinions on mankind’s Mars aspirations, and what Carl Sagan might have to say about the show.



How did you first become involved in this project?

National Geographic has been an esteemed collaborator on Cosmos. I loved my relationship with them, and Fox, so it was natural when they asked me to do this. They described the ambition of the project, and said it marked a turning point, along with Cosmos, for National Geographic to live up to its heritage. When I realized how they intended to use our voices as voices from the past, I thought it was so cool, and a beautiful way of integrating the dreamers and drama. I said, “OK, let’s go!”

What is your role “in the past”?

My role surprised them. I think they expected, in view of the work I’ve done all my life, to be a kind of cheerleader for going to Mars. But I feel so keenly that we’ve yet to demonstrate we can be trusted with this world. For me, too many in the Mars community look at going to Mars the way many used to look at going to heaven. That this is a disposable world, and you’ll just go there, and pick these very attractive people, and they’ll start a new Eden on Mars. For me, I can’t imagine one without the other. I don’t like the idea of people getting into space because they have money. For me, it's got to be a kind of international, and species-binding enterprise. At the same time, in parallel, we need the most concerted effort to avert the climate catastrophe that we are sleepwalking through.

But your take isn’t that going to Mars and working on the problems at home are mutually exclusive?

I think we have to have stereoscopic vision. We have to keep our eye on the prize, on preserving the great gift we have here. At the same time, we have to imagine the future … We have to have these distant horizons. From the very beginning, life has always been an escape artist. It has been an escape artist for its four-billion-year history. This is a logical next Lily pad to jump onto. Having a vision of the future, which includes inspiring exploration, is very badly needed. All we give our kids and grandchildren are a vision of a dystopic, nightmare future. This is something that requires hard work, deep knowledge, deep planning, and long-term thinking.

If I could change our species in one way, it would be to turn us into long-term thinkers. That would be the best thing we could do to ensure we have a future.

Why is this an important goal, to go to Mars?

There is a kind of fleeting grace to the habitable zone. It moves outward over time. It’s true, if you want to be a species that survives into the distant future, you have to become a spacefaring, multi-planet species. There is no way around that; if we stop loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, that doesn’t become an issue for a very long time. My priority would be to get our act together here, but the things we’ve learned about Mars have informed climate science. The things we’ve learned about Venus have been critical to our understanding of what’s happening on this planet right now. There is a cross-fertilization, but never one at the expense of the other.

What is your take on the privatized Mars missions?

I am not so excited when I hear this or that entrepreneur is going to figure out how to do this, and you can plunk down a couple hundred thousand dollars to go. That depresses me. It says even the greatest experiences in human history are essentially for sale. Whereas it was more like a meritocracy, though horribly exclusive in terms of the kind of humans that went. At least they were selected for their abilities and knowledge. I am dreaming of a time when we’ll go to Mars as a species, without regard to any of those toxic distinction.

Because of your work on Contact, and even the entertainment of Cosmos, do you think the view of science within popular culture is moving into an optimistic phase?

I hope so. There is no reason to become a scientist, or engineer, if you think you don’t have a future. For decades now, we’ve been in this hopeless entertainment vision. In the sense we messed everything up, and now it’s going to be so bad. Dreams are maps. I would never advocate any form of censorship, but what we saw was a reflection of where we were. But there is a ping-pong effect; someone breaks through with a movie like The Martian, where the regard for science is so high. We’ve slowly been coming out of a cultural disgust of science that has been heartbreaking.

If Carl Sagan was a voice on this show, what might he say about this show?

I can speak authoritatively on that because Carl was very vocal in the 1990s, 1980s, and before that. It was his dream that the United States, and Soviet Union, would essentially bury the hatchet, and become involved in an international mission to Mars. He wrote a beautiful piece called “Together to Mars,” which was exactly about that. That we could use our machismo and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and scientific cleverness, to go there. We could show we had attained a degree of maturity, and putting our talents to the best possible use.