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Vest urges scientists to carry on Sagan role

(Following are welcoming remarks made by President Charles M. Vest at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences at MIT on July 28).

Worldwide public and media interest in planetary science has been given a tremendous boost by recent events. The magnificent achievements of the Mars Pathfinder team, the fascinating data pouring in from Galileo, and the first asteroid photos from the ongoing NEAR mission to Eros have all captured the attention of press and public alike. Even the cosmos itself has cooperated in this publicity blitz by providing one of the most spectacular comet displays in human history.

Public interest in space hasn't been this high since the peak of the Apollo program--and that's great news for all of us. On the other hand, we know how fickle the public's attention can be. Those of us who are committed to furthering the long-term cause of space-based science and technology should therefore recognize that the current wave of publicity and good feeling represents an opportunity which we cannot afford to waste.

Those of you gathered in this room today are well aware of the value of space exploration. You know the advantages of studying the Earth as a planetary entity--and the importance of neighboring planetary bodies as a source of information about our home planet's past, present and future.

You also know of the rich data available from such recent space-based research ventures as the Hubble Telescope, Clementine, the discovery of the small bodies orbiting beyond Pluto in the Kuiper belt, the spectroscopic surveys of recent comets and the rest of the current crop of exciting interplanetary missions.

Before you move on, however, I beg you to take a moment to consider your obligations as ambassadors and salespeople for planetary science. You must not merely bask in the current glow of public attention: you must use it to inform, educate and motivate the public and policy-makers alike. You must learn how to keep up interest in--and support for--the work you do.

For too long, we in the scientific community have depended on a few key leaders to act as our advocates and promoters. In recent decades, no one has performed that difficult role with greater skill, dedication or tenacity than one of your organization's co-founders and past chairs, Carl Sagan.

It was said of Sagan at his memorial service that "he gave science as a gift to the people." To us, as scientists, he gave the gift of advocacy and public support. No one of us can hope to replace him, but each of us should feel a responsibility to carry on with his work. I am sure that, were he here today, he would remind us that current interest in space is a transitory phenomenon, and that we must make the most of it before it slips away.

It is wonderfully fitting that NASA has renamed the Mars Pathfinder lander as the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, but the best and most lasting tribute we can offer is to carry on his work as a public spokesperson for the importance of scientific inquiry both here on earth and in the heavens.

We owe no less to two other accomplished scientists--Jurgen Rahe and Eugene Shoemaker--whose recent, tragic deaths have stunned and diminished this community.

The best way for us to celebrate and preserve the memory of these distinguished scientists is to carry on the work in their names--and to make sure that the larger public understands (and appreciates) their indelible contributions to planetary science and to the entire human community.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.

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