Returning to the Cosmos

Tonight at 9pm is the premier of the reboot of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s been 33 years since the original Cosmos was aired on PBS.

That was quite a sequence of years for science: the year before, in 1979, the Voyager spacecrafts flew by Jupiter; in 1980 and 81 they flew by Saturn. In that low-tech pre-Internet age, an incredible thing happened: PBS stations across the US opened their doors to allow people to come in and view the live feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hosted by Carl Sagan himself. After school, I took the bus to the Maine Public Broadcasting studios on the UMaine campus where my mother worked. The feeds from JPL were made available by direct satellite link, a feat which felt futuristic at the time.

In real time, 13-year-old me watched as the first images of the rings of Jupiter, and the moons of Saturn were returned to Earth at a speed roughly equivalent to the modems we would be using for dialup Internet access a decade later. How amazing that we could accomplish such a feat – never before had mankind been witness to acts of discovery such as this in real time across our solar system.

Jim Blinn's computer rendering of Saturn for the Cosmos TV Series.

Jim Blinn’s computer rendering of Saturn for the Cosmos TV Series — one of the first computer graphics ever produced for television.

There is no small amount of irony that the new Cosmos is airing on Fox Television. It is even perhaps a greater irony that in the 80s Cold War era, we were more focused on science than we are today. Today, members of the US Congress regularly espouse a disbelief in evolution and natural selection, and display scorn for the scientific process as a whole. But how are we going to advance as a species without science? Does it take the us-versus-them mentality to really make it happen?

Tyson was a student of Sagan’s, and will bring his own style to the show. But he is bringing back the Cosmic Calendar and the Spaceship of the Imagination, and for that I am grateful. I am hopeful that it will renew, if only for a moment, the sense of amazing discovery that the original series did when it first aired.

And if we need another sense of renewal, the entire original series is available on YouTube. It still stands the test of time.