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Zoe P. Strassfield Headshot

Thank You, Carl Sagan

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(Partly inspired by the excellent children's book Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But...)

Dear Carl Sagan,

First of all, I want to apologize for this letter being a little bit late, as I know your 77th birthday was actually Wednesday, November 9. I was busy with schoolwork and the like. (You're a university professor, so I guess you know how it is.)

It feels weird thinking that this is already the fifth birthday that I've wished you, and yet it also seems weird thinking that it was ONLY five years ago that I discovered who you were and first began to read your work. (Even though I still consider it regrettable that I was never able to wish you a happy birthday when you were alive, as we only shared the planet for three short years.)

Still, five years is a good solid number, and it gave me the chance to look back and see just how much I owe to you, Professor.

I always liked astronomy, but I wasn't seriously interested in it until that day in my fifth-grade science class when we watched a movie about the Voyager probes. It was all very fascinating, but when they started to talk about the golden records attached to the side of each of the Voyager spacecraft, carrying sounds and images of Earth in case the probes are discovered by an extraterrestrial civilization...

... and then, they played one of those sound recordings, a very special one. A little boy's voice, saying "Hello from the children of Planet Earth." I didn't know at the time that the voice belonged to your son Nick. But I knew that this little boy's voice was going out, beyond all of the planets, out into interstellar space, and that although people had touched the device his voice was recorded on, no human might ever touch it again.

And that was incredible. It was a few years before I learned about the history of the record and who you were, but from that moment on, I was hooked on astronomy.

I never thought I'd meet astronauts, especially not several of them twice. I never thought I'd see a space shuttle launch. I never thought I'd get to work for NASA.

But I did, and I owe it to you.

I never thought I'd stand underneath a Saturn V rocket, do a simulated spacewalk, or see a life-size model space shuttle out my window on my way to brush my teeth in the bathroom every morning. But, because you got me interested in space travel, I asked to go to Space Camp, and attended Advanced Space Academy in the summers of 2008 and 2009. (Team von Braun and Team von Tisenhausen, for my fellow alums.)

I never thought I'd attend an event like the World Science Festival and meet people like Sandra Magnus, Leland Melvin, and Dava Newman. And I certainly never expected that all of them would remember me when I met them again slightly more than a year later! But, because of you, I knew science education was important, and I found out about such a wonderful event.

I never thought I'd see a space shuttle launch with my own eyes, and certainly not from Cape Canaveral. I never thought I'd spend my 18th birthday at Walt Disney World, watching the IllumiNATIONS fireworks at Epcot. But your example showed me that written words could make a difference, so I wrote to Charles Bolden.

I never thought I'd come to work every day at NASA Headquarters, attend events on Capitol Hill, visit the Smithsonian after-hours, or meet so many astronauts I had to keep a list. I never thought I'd be able to be friends with the head of NASA. But because of you, I knew how far you can get by being bold, so I applied for an internship.

And I never thought I'd meet other kids my age who felt the same way about space travel I did. But my first conversations with my current best friends, Hannah and Erin, were both about space travel. And I ended up applying to a college that had a chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and made all of my new friends in SEDS, AIAA, and the BU Astronomical Society.

On Wednesday night, your birthday, I went to Public Night at the BU Observatory as a member of the Astronomical Society. We had telescopes pointed at Jupiter and the Moon, and our job was to explain to the people who came to look through them what they were seeing.

There was an 8-year-old girl named Abby who was there with her father and her 10-year-old brother. Both Abby and her brother were very interested in Jupiter and everything we could tell them about the planets. They were especially impressed when I started talking about the "extremes" of different planets -- that Venus is so hot that lead would melt on its surface, that Mars has a mountain three times as tall as Mount Everest, and the Great Red Spot on Jupiter is a hurricane-like storm larger than the Earth that's been raging for at least 400 years.

But the thing that amazed them the most was when we talked about how far away the planets are. I mentioned that spaceships take 3 days to reach the moon, and 6 months to reach Mars, but that the New Horizons probe won't reach Pluto until 9 years after it was launched.

"So, if I traveled to Pluto, I wouldn't get there until I was 19! And she'd be 17!" Abby's brother said, excitedly.

And what I want to thank you the most for, Professor Sagan, is the look of wonder those children had on their faces, and having been able to inspire it.