By Olav Phillips

For many years the eminent astrophysicist Carl Sagan was one of the most vocal people out there in the “debunking” of various UFO / Alien theories.  Strangely while simultaneously debunking Sagan did support the SETI program and many times spoke of the idea of alien societies existing, in fact, he devoted time to this idea in his legendary television show “Cosmos,” even while he dismissed the idea of visitation of the earth by alien cultures.

Two prime examples of Sagan’s purported thoughts of alien visitation can be found in his handwritten notes for the book A Pale Blue Dot:

In these handwritten notes, Sagan clearly promotes the idea that most all UFO Sightings are fakes or due to psychological issues and in the case of abductions be dismisses them as a largely American cultural phenomenon.  Both these notes are very consistent with his historical writings and lectures on the subject, but the new book “The Sagan Conspiracy: NASA’s Untold Plot to Suppress The People’s Scientist’s Theory of Ancient Aliens” by Donald Zygutis purports to expose a NASA program to suppress Sagan’s real views on the subject.



So what were Sagan’s real views on the subject of alien visitation on the earth?  We’re they really divergent from his public persona?  A newly discovered paper submitted to Planetary Space Science in 1963 appears to tell a very different story and it would appear to have come from a very different Carl Sagan.  Now we cannot argue that Sagan didn’t believe in extraterrestrials because he did.  He supported SETI and he lectured often about how they must exist (i.e. the Drake Equation).  What Sagan railed against, as those notes show, is the idea of aliens actually coming to earth. But that public persona / personality may actually be at odds which is true beliefs or he may have changed his opinion over time.

In the article authored by Sagan while he was at the Department of Genetics at Standford University and titled  “DIRECT CONTACT AMONG GALACTIC CIVILIZATIONS BY RELATIVISTIC INTERSTELLAR SPACEFLIGHT,” Sagan makes the argument that not only is direct visitation theoretically possible, but inevitable. Interestingly, Sagan also points out the problems of radio or electromagnetic communication over long distances.

His summation is pretty clear:

Electromagnetic communication assumes that the choice of signal frequency will be obvious to all communities. But there has been considerable disagreement about interstellar transmission frequency assignment even on our own planet(1*2*3*;4 ,5)  among galactic communities, we can expect much more sizable differences of opinion about what is obvious and what is not. No matter how ingenious the method, there are certain limitations on the character of the communication effected with an alien civilization by electromagnetic signaling. With billions of years of independent biological and social evolution, the thought processes and habit patterns of any two communities must differ greatly; electromagnetic communication of programmed learning between two such communities would seem to be a very difficult undertaking indeed. The learning is vicarious. Finally, electromagnetic communication does not permit two of the most exciting categories of interstellar contact-namely, contact between an advanced civilization and an intelligent but pre-technical society, and the exchange of artifacts and biological specimens among the various communities.

Now that statement is pretty clearly Sagan arguing against the success of SETI. The premise of SETI being to scan the sky looking for alien radio signals or leakage (ie transmissions accidentally beamed into space).  But Sagan’s own comments seem to point in the direction of SETI being unsuccessful.

Electromagnetic communication assumes that the choice of signal frequency will be obvious to all communities. But there has been considerable disagreement about interstellar transmission frequency assignment even on our own planet(1*2*3*;4 ,5)  among galactic communities, we can expect much more sizable differences of opinion about what is obvious and what is not.

In the article, Sagan, surprisingly, argues that extraterrestrial is not only inevitable but has occurred and occurred multiple times!

The statistics presented earlier in this paper suggest that the Earth has been visited by various galactic civilizations many times (possibly -l0-4) during geological time.

In fact, Sagan goes on to say that most likely there are still bases which may be active in the solar system!

It is not out of the question that artifacts of these visits still exist, or even that some kind of base is maintained (possibly automatically) within the solar system to provide continuity for successive expeditions.

He goes on to suggest that the bases are most likely on the moon but could be on other bodies as well and the math, according to Sagan, argues they’ve been here many times.

And it is from there Sagan launches into an interesting section of the paper.  At first he argues no convincing evidence of ancient contact has occurred and sets forth a list of requirements that would need to be met, or rather should be met, to make the story crediable.

Accordingly, we require more of a legend than the apparition of a strange being who does extraordinary works and lives in the sky. It would certainly add credibility if no obvious supernatural adumbration were attached to the story. A description of the morphology of an intelligent non-human, a clear account of astronomical realities for a primitive people, or a transparent presentation of the purpose of the contact would increase the credibility of the legend.

From that point, he points out several examples where legends failed to meet that criteria, but in the end, he finds a story which “almost” meets the criteria, when in fact it actually does meet the criteria.

There are other legends which more nearly satisfy the foregoing contact criteria, and which deserve serious study in the present context. As one example, we may mention the Babylonian account of the origin of Sumerian civilization by the Apkah, representatives of an advanced, nonhuman and possibly extraterrestrial society(41).

Whats also interesting in reading this paragraph is that in his handwritten notes there is quite a bit devoted to Sumerian art and iconography.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sagan was actually quite invested in the study of Sumerian mythology. But it’s interesting that he goes right to the Sumerians.  That should tell us something.  He’s giving us a message and he did write this at least 5 years after he started doing science consulting for the USAF and at least three after he absolutely had a security clearance.

Most of the Sagan on UFO’s or extraterrestrial visitation we saw came from the USAF Scientist (Project A1119), RAND Planetary Sciences Consultant,  NASA Consultant, Project Blue Book Review Board member and holder of multiple security clearances.  Maybe behind all those contracts and clearances was the scientist Sagan who believed not only had we been visited but we’ve been visited multiple times and that there are artifacts of those visits.

Unfortunately, Carl Sagan passed away many years ago so we will never know the answer.  Sagan was a huge proponent of public science and sought to bring sciences to the masses.  Maybe he was also a fan of Ancient Astronaut Hypthosis!


Below we have reproduced the full article Sagen wrote and was published in Planetary Sciences in 1963.  If you are interested in the math please download the original (at the bottom of the article) since math symbols don’t translate well to HTML.  We have also provided a link to the notes he had as well.


By Carl Sagan
Department of Genetics
Standford University Medical Centre
Palo Alto, California


Originally Published: Planet. Space Sci. 1963, Vol. 11, pp. 485 to 498. Pergamon Press Ltd. Printed in Northern Ireland


An estimate of the number of advanced technical civilizations on planets of other stars depends on our knowledge of the rate of star formation; the frequency of favorably situated planets; the probabilities of the origins of life, of intelligence and of technical civilization; and the lifetimes of technical civilizations. These parameters are poorly known. The estimates of the present paper lead to ∼10×6 extant advanced technical civilizations in our Galaxy. The most probable distance to the nearest such community is then several hundred light years.

Interstellar spaceflight at relativistic velocities has several obvious advantages over electro­ magnetic communication among these civilizations. One striking feature is that with uniform ac­celeration of 1g to the midpoint of the journey, and uniform deceleration thereafter, all points in the Galaxy are accessible within the lifetime of a human crew, due to relativistic time dilation. Some of the technical problems in the construction of starships capable of relativistic velocities are discussed. It is concluded that with nuclear staging, fusion reactors, and the Bussard inter­ stellar ramjet, no fundamental energetic problems exist for relativistic interstellar spaceflight.

We assume that there exists in the Galaxy a loosely integrated community of diverse civil­izations, cooperating in the exploration and sampling of astronomical objects and their inhabitants. If each such advanced civilization launches one interstellar vehicle per year, the mean time interval between samplings of an average star would be 105 years, that between samplings of a planetary system with intelligent life would be 104 years, and that between sampling of another advanced civilization would be 103 years. It follows that there is the statistical likelihood that Earth was visited by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization at least once during historical times. There are serious difficulties in demonstrating such a contact by ancient writings and iconography alone. Nevertheless, there are legends which might profitably be studied in this context. Bases or other artifacts of interstellar spacefaring civiliz­ations might also exist elsewhere in the solar system. The conclusions of the present paper are clearly provisional.


In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the ancient speculation that civilizations exist on other worlds beyond the Earth. This question has retained a basic and widespread appeal from the beginnings of human history; but only in the past decade has it become even slightly tractable to serious scientific investigation. Work on stellar statistics and stellar evolution has suggested that a large fraction of the stars in the sky have planetary systems. Studies of the origin of the solar system and of the origin of the first terrestrial organisms have suggested that life readily arises early in the history of favorably-situated planets. The prospect occurs that life is a pervasive constituent of the universe. By terrestrial analogy it is not unreasonable to expect that, over astronomical timescales, intelligence and technical civilizations will evolve on many life-bearing planets. Under such circumstances the possibility then looms that contact with other galactic communities may somehow be established. It has been argued that the natural channel for interstellar communication is radio emission near the 21 cm line of neutral hydrogen(1); or between 3·2 and 8·1 cm(2); or at 10·5 cm<3> . Alternatively, laser modulation of the intensity of core reversal in the Fraunhofer lines of late-type stars has been suggested<4>; or automatic interstellar probe vehicles transmitting a precoded message to planetary sources of monochromatic radio emission which are randomly encountered<5>.

The purpose of the present paper is to explore the likelihood and possible consequences of another communications channel: direct physical contact among galactic communities by relativistic interstellar spaceflight. Part of the impetus for publishing these remarks has been a paper by von Hoerner<3> which arrives at very pessimistic estimates for the number of extraterrestrial civilizations; and three papers<6•7•8> which reach distinctly negative con­clusions on the ultimate prospect of relativistic interstellar spaceflight. I feel that the information now available permits rather different conclusions to be drawn.

The line of argument to be pursued involves a number of parameters which are only poorly known. The discussion is intended to stimulate further work in a number of disciplines. The reader is invited to adopt a skeptical frame of mind and to modify the conclusions accordingly. Only through extensive discussion and experiment will the true outlines gradually emerge in this enigmatic but significant subject.


We desire to compute the number of extant galactic communities which have attained a technical capability substantially in advance of our own. At the present rate of technological progress, we might picture this capability as several hundred years or more beyond our own stage of development. A simple method of computing this number is primarily due to F. D. Drake, and was discussed extensively at a Conference on Intelligent Extrater­restrial Life held at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in November, 1961, and sponsored by the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. While the details differ in several respects, the following discussion is in substantial agreement with the conclusions of the Conference.

The number of extant advanced technical civilizations possessing both the interest and the capability for interstellar communication can be expressed as

R is the mean rate of star formation averaged over the lifetime of the Galaxy, f‘ is the fraction of stars with planetary systems, n8 is the mean number of planets in each planetary system with environments favorable for the origin of life,/, is the fraction of such favorable planets on which life does develop,/; is the fraction of such inhabited planets on which intelligent life with manipulative ·abilities arises during the lifetime of the local sun, J is the fraction of planets populated by intelligent beings on which an advanced technical civilization in the sense previously defined arises during the lifetime of the local sun, and L is the lifetime of the technical civilization. We now proceed to discuss each parameter in turn.

Since stars of solar mass or less have lifetimes on the main sequence comparable to the age of the Galaxy, it is not the present rate of star formation but the mean rate of star formation during the age of the Galaxy which concerns us here. The number of known stars in the Galaxy is ∼10×11 , most of which have mass equal to or less than the Sun. The age of the Galaxy is∼10×10 years. Consequently, a first estimate for the mean rate of star formation is ∼10 stars/year. The present rate of star formation is at least an order of magnitude less than this figure, and the rate of star formation in early galactic history is possibly several orders of magnitude more(g). According to present views of stellar nucleogenesis <10>, stars (and, by implication, planets) formed in the early history of the Galaxy are extremely poor in heavy elements. Technical civilizations developed on such ancient planets would of necessity be extremely different from our own. But in the flurry of early star formation when the Galaxy was young, heavy elements must have been generated rapidly and later generations of stars and planets would have had adequate endowments of high mass number nuclides. These very early systems should be subtracted in our estimate of R. On the other hand, a suspicion exists that large numbers of low mass stars may exist to the right of the main sequence ir. the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram <11>. Inclusion of these objects will tend to increase our estimate of R,. For present purposes we adopt R, ∼ IO/yr.

There is a discontinuity interstellar rotational volcity near spectral type F5y; stars of later spectral type have very slow equatorial rotation rates. This circumstance is generally attributed to the transfer of angular momentum from the star to a surrounding solar nebula by magnetic coupling  <12,13,14,15>. The solar nebula is then expected to condense into a planetary system ( 15,16,17,18 ). The fraction of stars of later type than F5V is greater than 0.98; well over 60 per cent of these are dwarf M stars(lg). It is not known what influence the luminosity of the star has on the subsequent condensation and dissipation of the surrounding solar nebula. We might expect that stars of much earlier type than the Sun readily dissipate their solar nebulae; and that stars of much later type than the Sun dissipate very little of their solar nebulae, thereby forming large numbers of massive planets of the Jovian type. There is good evidence that many of the chemical processes in the early history of the solar system occurred at low temperature<17>, and the low luminosity of late type stars is unlikely to impede condensation processes in the solar nebula. We therefore adopt fp, 1.

Planets of double and multiple star systems are expected in general to have-over astronomical timescales-such erratic orbits that the evolution of life on them is deemed unlikely<20>. I fail to find this argument entirely convincing; but for conservative reasons it will be included in the discussion. The fraction of stars which are not members of double or multiple systems is 0*S21). In our own solar system the number of planets which are favorably situated for the origin of life is at least two (Earth and Mars), and the possibility that life arose at some time on the Jovian planets(22’ has recently been raised. It is sometimes argued that life cannot develop on planets of M dwarfs, because the luminosity of the local sun is too small. However, especially for Jovian type planets of M dwarfs, the greenhouse effect in a methane-ammonia-water atmosphere should produce quite reasonable temperatures. We adopt ne 0.5 x 2 = 1.

The most recent work on the origin of life strongly suggests that life arose very rapidly during the early history of the Earth(22-25). It appears that the production of self-replicating molecular systems is a forced process which is bound to occur because of the physics and chemistry of primitive planetary environments. Such self-replicating systems, situated in a medium filled with replication precursors, satisfy all the requirements for natural selection and biological evolution. Given sufficient time and an environment which is not entirely static, the evolution of complex organisms is apparently inevitable. In our own solar system, the origin of life has probably occurred at least twice. We adopt F1-1.

The question of the evolution of intelligence is a difficult one. This is not a field which lends itself to laboratory experimentation, and the number of intelligent species available  for study on Earth is limited. Intelligent hominids have inhabited the Earth for f of Earth history.

It is clear that the evolution of intelligence and manipulative ability has resulted from the product of a large number of individually unlikely events. If the history of the Earth were started again, it is highly improbable that the same sequence of events would recur and that intelligence would evolve in the identical manner. On the other hand, the adaptive value of intelligence and manipulative ability is so great-at least until technical civilizations are developed-that if it is genetically feasible, natural selection is very likely to bring it forth. There is some evidence that surprisingly high levels of intelligence have evolved in the Cetacea(26). Phylogenetically, these are rather close to hominids; the neuroanatomy of Cetacea brains is remarkably similar to that of the primates, although the most recent common ancestor of the two groups lived more than 108 years ago(26). The Cetacea have very limited manipulative abilities.

Comparison of the rates of stellar and of biological evolution provides some perspective on the probability that intelligence will arise on an otherwise suitable planet. Terrestrial intelligence and civilization have emerged roughly midway in the Sun’s residence time on the main sequence. The overwhelming majority of stars in the sky have longer lifetimes than the Sun. With the expectation that the Earth is not extraordinary in its recent evolution but allowing for the fact that apparently only one intelligent phylogenetic order with manipulative abilities has developed, and this only recently, we adopt fi N 10-l.

Whether there is one, or several, foci for the line of cultural development which has led to the present technical civilization on Earth is still an open question, depending in part on the extent of cultural diffusion over large distances some five or six thousand years in the past. It appears that little can be gained from speculation on, e.g. whether Aztec civilization would have developed a technical phase had there been no Conquistadores 

Recorded history – even in the mythological guise – covers <10×2 of the period in which the Earth has been inhabited by hominids, and < 10×5 of geological time. The same considerations are involved as in the determination of fi. The development of a technical civilization has high survival value at least up to a point, but in any given case it depends on the concatenation of many improbable events, and it has occurred only recently in terrestrial history. It is unlikely that the Earth is very extraordinary in possessing a technical civilization among planets inhabited by intelligent beings. As before, over stellar evolutionary timescales, we adopt f, 10-1.

The multiplication of the preceding factors gives

L is the mean lifetime in years of a technical civilization possessing both the interest and the capability for interstellar communication. For the evaluation of L there is-fortunately for us, but unfortunately for the discussion-not even one known terrestrial example. The present technical civilization on Earth has reached the communicative phase (in the sense of high-gain directional antennas for the reception of extraterrestrial radio signals) only within the last few years. There is a sober possibility that L for Earth will be measured in decades. It is also possible that international political differences will be permanently settled, and that L may be measured in geological time. It is conceivable that, on other worlds, the resolution of national conflicts and the establishment of planetary governments are accomplished before weapons of mass destruction become available. We can imagine two extreme alternatives for the evaluation of L: (a) a technical civilization destroys  itself soon after reaching the communicative phase (L <lo2 years); or (b) a technicalcivilization learns to live with itself soon after reaching the communicative phase. If it survives >1o-2 years, it will be unlikely to destroy itself afterwards. In the latter case its lifetime may be measured on a stellar evolutionary timescale (L > los) years. Such a society will exercise self-selection on its members; genetic changes will be unable to move the species off the adaptive peak of the technical civilization. The technology will certainly be adequate to cope with tectonic and orogenic changes. Even the evolution of the local sun through the red giant and white dwarf evolutionary stages may not pose insuperable problems for the survival of an extremely advanced community.

It seems improbable that, surrounded by large numbers of fleurishing and diverse galactic communities, a given planetary civilization will retreat from the communicative phase. This is one reason that L is itself a function of N. Von Hoerner as suggested another reason: he feels that the means of avoiding self-destruction will be among the  primary contents of initial interstellar communications.

Gold has talked of the possibility that interstellar space voyagers accidentally may biologically contaminate lifeless planets, and thereby initiate the origin of life. There is also some prospect that such initiation might be purposefully performed. In these cases f, = f i ( N ) . Below we will discuss the possibility that fc =f,(N). For these reasons it should be remembered that equation (1) is in reality an integral equation.

The two choices for L (< lo2 years and 3 108 years) lead to two values of N: < 10 communicative technical civilizations per galaxy, or > 10′. Thus the evaluation of N depends quite critically on our expectation for the lifetime of the average advanced community. Von Hoerner has made very pessimistic estimates for L, and his values of N are correspondingly small. It seems more reasonable to me that at least a few per cent of the advanced technical civilizations in the Galaxy do not destroy themselves, nor lose interest in interstellar communication, nor suffer insuperable biological or geological catastrophes, and that their lifetimes, therefore, are measured on stellar evolutionary timescales. Averaged over all technical civilizations, we therefore take L N lo7 years. For the purposes of the following discussion then, we adopt as the steady-state number of extant advanced technical civilizations in the Galaxy :

N – 10-6.

Thus, approximately 0.001 per cent of the stars in the sky will have a planet upon which an advanced civilization resides. The most probable distance to the nearest such community is then several hundred light years.”


The difficulties of electromagnetic communication over such interstellar distances are serious. A simple query and response to the nearest technical civilization requires periods approaching 1600 years. An extended conversation-or direct communication with a particularly interesting community on the other side of the Galaxy-will occupy much greater time intervals, lo-4 to lo-5 years.

Electromagnetic communication assumes that the choice of signal frequency will be obvious to all communities. But there has been considerable disagreement about interstellar transmission frequency assignment even on our own planet(1*2*3*;4 ,5)  among galactic communities, we can expect much more sizable differences of opinion about what is obvious and what is not. No matter how ingenious the method, there are certain limitations on the character of the communication effected with an alien civilization by electromagnetic signaling. With billions of years of independent biological and social evolution, the thought processes and habit patterns of any two communities must differ greatly; electromagnetic communication of programmed learning between two such communities would seem to be a very difficult undertaking indeed. The learning is vicarious. Finally, electromagnetic communication does not permit two of the most exciting categories of interstellar contact-namely, contact between an advanced civilization and an intelligent but pre-technical society, and the exchange of artifacts and biological specimens among the various communities.

Interstellar space flight sweeps away these difficulties. It reopens the arena of action for civilizations where local exploration has been completed; it provides access beyond the planetary frontiers.

There are two basic methods of achieving interstellar spaceflight within characteristic human lifetimes. One involves the slowing down of human metabolic activities during very long flight times. In the remainder of the paper, we will discuss relativistic interstellar spaceflight, which, in effect accomplishes the identical function, and further, permits the voyager to return to his home planet in much shorter periods of time, as measured on the home planet.

If relativistic velocities can be achieved, time dilation will permit very long journeys within a human lifetime. Consider a starship capable of uniform acceleration to the midpoint of the journey, and uniform deceleration thereafter. The relativistic equations of motion have been solved by Peschka(28a) nd by Sanger(29).F or our flight plan, their results are readily modified, and yield for the time t, as measured on the space vehicle, to travel distance S, with a uniform acceleration a to S/2 and a uniform deceleration -a thereafter:

t = (242) arc cosh (1 + aS/2c2) (2)

where c is the velocity of light. The results for such an acceleration-deceleration flight plan are shown in Fig. 1.

At an acceleration of 1 g-as would be appropriate for inhabitants of a planet of terrestrial mass and radius-it takes only a few years shiptime to reach the nearest stars, 21 years to reach the Galactic Center, and 28 years to reach the nearest spiral galaxy beyond the Milky Way. With accelerations of 2 or 3 g-as would be appropriate for inhabitants of a planet of Jovian mass and radius-these distances can be negotiated in about half the time. Of course there is no time dilation on the home planet; the elapsed time in years approximately equals the distance of the destination in light years plus twice the time to reach relativistic velocities. For distances beyond about ten light years, the elapsed time on the home planet in years roughly equals the distance of the destination in light years.

Thus, for a round trip with a several-year stopover to the nearest stars, the elapsed time on Earth will be a few decades; to Deneb, a few centuries; to the Vela Cloud Complex, a few millenia; to the Galactic Center, a few tens of thousands of years; to M31, a few million years; to the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, a few tens of millions of years; and to the Coma Cluster, a few hundreds of millions of years. Nevertheless, each of these immense journeys could be performed within the lifetimes of a human crew. For transgalactic and intergalactic distances, equation (2) reduces to

and in this range the curves of Fig. 1 are straight lines on a semi-logarithmic plot.

A number of difficulties have been presented by early authors on the technical aspects of relativistic interstellar spaceflight. Even with complete conversion of mass into energy, extreme mass ratios are required if all the fuel is carried at launch. For relativistic velocities and the above flight plan, the mass ratio is approximately equal to 2/+, where 4 1 (v/c), and u is the maximum vehicle velo~ity(7.30,3~F)o. r example, to reach u = 0.999 c, the liftoff weight must be some 2000 times the payload, and it is clear that enormous initial vehicle masses are required. For the round trip with no refueling, the mass ratio is (2/+)2.

Thus, A~ k e r e t ( ~ ~co3n~cllu)d ed that “even with daring assumptions,” interstellar spaceflight at relativistic velocities would be feasible only for travel to the nearest stars. Furthermore, baryon charge conservation prevents the complete conversion of matter to energy, except

if half the working fuel is antimatter(32); the containment of the antimatter-to say nothing of its production in the quantities required-is clearly a very serious problem. An additional difficulty with such an antimatter starship drive has been emphasized by Purcell”) the gamma ray exhaust would be lethal for the inhabitants of the launch planet if the drive were turned on near the planet (and if atmospheric absorption is neglected). Staging of fusion rockets(33) provides some relaxation of the required mass ratios, but it appears that relativistic velocities cannot be obtained by such staging alone.

A way out of these difficulties has been provided by Bussard(34) in a most stimulating paper. Bussard describes an interstellar ramjet which uses the interstellar medium both  as a working fluid (to provide reaction mass), and as an energy source (by thermonuclear fusion). There is no complete conversion of matter into energy; the existing mass deficits and low reaction cross-sections for the conversion of hydrogen to deuterium are used. The reactor is certainly not available today; but it violates no physical principles, it is currently being very actively pursued, and there is no reason to expect it to be more than a few centuries away from realization on this planet. The Bussard interstellar ramjet requires very large frontal area loading densities: -10-8 g cm-2 per nucleon  in the interstellar medium. Thus, if the payload is lo9 gm, the intake area must have a radius of -60 kin in regions where the interstellar density is as high as 10-3 nucleons cm-3. In ordinary interstellar space, where the density is -1 nucleon cm-3,  the, intake area radius must be -2000 km. If the latter radius seems absurdly large, even projecting for the progress of future technology, we can easily imagine the vehicle to seek trajectories through clouds of interstellar material, and vary its acceleration with the density of the medium within which it finds itself. Pierce(6) had earlier considered and rejected interstellar ramjets, but the rejection was based on much smaller intake areas than Bussard proposes.

Of course, the intake area may not necessarily be material; to the extent that the ramjet sweeps up ionized interstellar material magnetic fields could be used for collection. Starships would then seek trajectories through H II regions. The Bussard interstellar ramjet also requires moderate liftoff velocities, but even presently-achievable liftoff velocities as low as 1-10 km/sec would be adequate.

Bussard does not discuss the method of funneling the interstellar matter so it can be collected and utilized for propulsion. Indeed this is one fundamental problem which must be faced by any relativistic interstellar vehicle; otherwise, the structural and biological damage from the induced cosmic ray flux will prevent any useful application of the extreme velocities achieved. The maximum velocity of the vehicle in the rest frame, after covering S/2, half the distance to the destination, at uniform acceleration a, is given(29,30) by

Equation (4) is illustrated in Fig. 2 for the same three choices of a which have already been used. The abscissa gives the maximum velocity reached, expressed as = 1 v/c, during a half acceleration-half deceleration flight plan to a destination at distance S. For example, for a trip to Galactic Center, maximum velocities within IO-‘ to percent of the velocity of light are required. Also shown in Fig. 2 are the velocities at which relative kinetic energies of 1 MeV, 1 BeV, and 1 erg are imparted to interstellar protons by the motion of the vehicle. For travel to even the nearest stars within a human shipboard lifetime, protection from the induced cosmic ray flux is mandatory. It is evident from the large mass ratios already required for boosted interstellar flight, and from the low frontal loading area surface densities required for an interstellar ramjet, that material shielding is probably not a feasible solution.

If some means of ionizing the impacting interstellar material could be found, the ions can be deflected and captured by a magnetic field. In the case that trajectories through H II regions are sought, the interstellar medium will be already largely ionized, and magnetic funneling would be practicable. The configuration of the field would have to be designed very ingeniously, but the average field strengths required could be as low as a few hundred gauss even for very long voyages. Much higher field strengths would be required, at least in the propulsion module, for a fusion ramjet; or alternatively for a contained plasma driving a photon rocket(3). It appears likely that superconducting flux pumps(36) can provide the magnetic field strengths required for deflection of the induced cosmic ray flux.

Bussard’s(34) concluding remarks on the size of the frontal loading area and the magnitude of the effort involved in relativistic interstellar spaceflight are worth quoting: “This is very large by ordinary standards, but then, on any account, interstellar travel is inherently a rather grand undertaking, certainly many magnitudes broader in scope and likewise more

difficult than interplanetary travel in the solar system, for example. The engineering effort required for the achievement of successful short-time interstellar flight will likely be as much greater than that involved in interplanetary flight as the latter is more difficult than travel on the surface of the Earth. However, the expansion of man’s horizons will be proportionately greater, and nothing worthwhile is ever achieved easily.”

The purpose of this Section is to lend credence to the proposition that a combination of staged fusion boosters, large mass-ratios, ramjets working on the interstellar medium and trajectories through H I1 regions is capable of travel certainly to the nearest stars within a human shipboard lifetime, without appeal to as yet undiscovered principles.

Especially allowing for a modicum of scientific and technological progress within the next few centuries, I believe that interstellar spaceflight at relativistic velocities to the farthest reaches of our Galaxy is a feasible objective for humanity. And if this is the case, other civilizations, aeons more advanced than ours, must today be plying the spaces between the stars.


We can expect that if interstellar spaceflight is technically feasible-even though an exceedingly expensive and difficult undertaking, from our point of view it will be developed.

Even beyond the exchanges of information and ideas with other intelligent communities, the scientific advantages of interstellar spaceflight stagger the imagination. There are direct astronomical samplings-of stars in all evolutionary stages, of distant planetary systems, of the interstellar medium, of very ancient globular clusters. There are cooperative astronomical ventures, such as the trigonometric parallaxes of extremely distant objects. There is the observation and sampling of a multitude of independent biologies and societies. These are undertakings which could challenge and inspire even a very long-lived civilization. For the civilization lifetimes, L, previously adopted we see that interstellar space flight to all points within the Galaxy, and even to other galaxies, is possible in principle. The voyagers will return far in the future of their departure, but we have already anticipated that the civilization will be stable over these immense periods of time. There will still be a record of the departure, a repository for the information collected, and a community interested in the results. To avoid unnecessary duplication in interstellar exploration, the communicative societies will pool information and act in concert, as Bracewell already pointed out. Direct contacts and exchange of information and artifacts will exist among most spacefaring societies possessing relativistic starships. In fact, over large distances, starship communication will occur very nearly as rapidly as, and much more reliably than, communication by electromagnetic radiation. The situation bears some similarity to the post-Renaissance seafaring communities of Europe and their colonies before the development of clipper and steamships. If relativistic interstellar space flight is feasible, the technical civilizations of the Galaxy will be an intercommunicating whole but the communication will be sluggish.

It is of some interest to estimate the mean time interval between contacts for a given planetary system. Although the shipboard transit times at relativistic velocities are very roughly the same to any place in the Galaxy, the elapsed time on the home planet is of course approximately proportional to the distance of the voyage, Consequently contact should be greatest among neighboring communities, although we can anticipate that occasional very long journeys will be attempted.

Let each of the N planets in the communicative phase launch q relativistic starships per year. These vehicles each effect at least one contact per journey, and are most often gone some 103-104 years from the home planet per mission. In the steady state, there are then contacts affected by each starship-launching civilization per year, and -qN contacts per year for the Galaxy as a whole. Relative to the economic capacity of such advanced civilizations, a value of q = 1 y r l seems modest. (Other choices of q will modify the results in an obvious manner.) Each civilization then makes -1 contact per year and an average of lo-7 contacts during its lifetime. The number of contacts per year for the Galaxy as a whole is then IO6; a sizable fraction of these should be between two advanced communities. The mean number of starships on patrol from each technical civilization at any given time is 1 10-3 — 10-4.

If contacts are made on a purely random basis, each star should be visited about once each l0-5 years. Even the most massive stars will then be examined at least once while they are on the main sequence. Especially with a central galactic information repository, these advanced civilizations should have an excellent idea of which planetary environments are most likely to develop intelligent life. With average contact frequency per planet of yr-l, the origin and evolution of life on every planet in the Galaxy can be monitored efficiently. The successive development of metazoa, of cooperative behavior, of the use of tools, and of primitive intraspecific communication schemes would each be noted, and would each be followed by an increase in the interstellar sampling frequency. Iffi N lO-l, then, on a purely random basis, the frequency of contact with intelligent pre technical planetary communities should be -lo4 yr-l. Once technical civilization has been established, and especially after the communicative phase has come into being, the contact frequency will be visited even more frequently. Under the preceding assumptions, each communicative technical civilization should be visited by another such civilization about once every thousand years. The survey vehicles of each civilization should return to the home planet at a rate of about one a year, and a sizable fraction of these will have had contact with other communities. The wealth, diversity and brilliance of this commerce, the exchange of goods and information, of arguments and artifacts, of concepts and conflicts, must continuously sharpen the curiosity and enhance the vitality of the participating societies.

The preceding discussion has a curious application to our own planet. On the basis of the assumptions made, some one or two million years ago, with the emergence of Proconsul and Zinjanthropus, the rate of sampling of our planet should have increased to about once every ten thousand years. At the beginning of the most recent post-glacial epoch, the development of social structure, art, religion, and elementary technical skills should have increased the contact frequency still further. But if the interval between samplings is only several thousand years, there is then a possibility that contact with an extraterrestrial civilization has occurred within historical times.


There are no reliable reports of contacts during the last few centuries, when critical scholarship and nonsuperstitious reasoning have been fairly widespread. Any earlier contact story must be encumbered with some degree of fanciful embellishment, due simply to the views prevailing at the time of the contact. The extent to which subsequent variation and embellishment alters the basic fabric of the account varies with time and circumstance. Brailoiu (37) records an incident in Rumanian folklore, where, but forty years after a romantic tragedy, the story became elaborately embellished with mythological material and supernatural beings. At the time as thc ballad was being sung and attributed to remote antiquity, the actual heroine was still alive.

Another incident, which is more relevant to the topic at hand, is the native account of the first contact with European civilization by the Tlingit people of the Northeast Coast of North America(38). The contact occurred in 1786 with an expedition led by the French navigator La Perouse. The Tlingit kept no written records. One century after the contact the verbal narrative of the encounter was related to Emmons by a principal Tlingit chief.

The story is overladen with the mythological framework in which the French sailing vessels were initially interpreted. But what is very striking is that the true nature of the encounter had been faithfully preserved. One blind old warrior had mastered his fears at the time of the encounter, had boarded one of the French ships, and exchanged goods with the Europeans. Despite his blindness, he reasoned that the occupants of the vessels were men. His interpretation led to active trade between the expedition of La Perouse and the Tlingit. The oral tradition contained sufficient information for later reconstruction of the true nature of the encounter, although many of the incidents were disguised in a mythological framework: e.g., the sailing ships were described as immense black birds with white wings.

The encounter between the Tlingit and La Perouse suggests that under certain circumstances a brief contact with an alien civilization will be recorded in a reconstructable manner. The reconstruction will be greatly aided if (1) the account is committed to written record soon after the event, (2) a major change is effected in the contacted society by the encounter, and (3) no attempt is made by the contacting civilization to disguise its exogenous nature.

On the other hand, it is obvious that the reconstruction of a contact with an extraterrestrial civilization is fraught with difficulties. What guise may we expect such a contact, myth to wear? A simple account of the apparition of a strange being who performs marvelous works and resides in the heavens is not quite adequate. All peoples have a need to understand their environment, and the attribution of the incompletely understood to nonhuman deities is at least mildly satisfying. When interaction occurs among peoples supporting different deities, it is inevitable that each group will claim extraordinary powers for its god. Residence of the gods in the sky is not even approximately suggestive of extraterrestrial origin. After all, where can the gods reside? Obviously not over in the next county; it would be too easy to disprove their existence by taking a walk. Until very subtle metaphysical constructs are developed-possibly in desperation-the gods can only live beneath the ground, in the waters, or in the sky. And except perhaps for seafaring peoples, the sky offers the widest range of opportunities for theological speculation.

Accordingly, we require more of a legend than the apparition of a strange being who does extraordinary works and lives in the sky. It would certainly add credibility if no obvious supernatural adumbration were attached to the story. A description of the morphology of an intelligent non-human, a clear account of astronomical realities for a primitive people, or a transparent presentation of the purpose of the contact would increase the credibility of the legend.

In the Soviet Union, Agrest and others have called attention to several biblical incidents which they suspect to reflect contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. For example, Agrest considers the incidents related in the apocryphal book, the “Slavonic Enoch,” to be in reality an account of the visitation of Earth by extraterrestrial cosmonauts, and the reciprocal visitation of several galactic communities by a rather befuddled inhabitant of Earth. However, the Slavonic Enoch fails to satisfy several of the criteria for a genuine contact myth mentioned above: it has been molded into several different standardized supernatural frameworks; there is no transparent extraterrestrial motivation for the events described, and the astronomy is largely wrong. The interested reader may wish to consult standard versions of the manuscript(40).

There are other legends which more nearly satisfy the foregoing contact criteria, and which deserve serious study in the present context. As one example, we may mention the Babylonian account of the origin of Sumerian civilization by the Apkah, representatives of an advanced, nonhuman and possibly extraterrestrial society(41).

A completely convincing demonstration of past contact with an extraterrestrial civilization may never be provided on textural and iconographic grounds alone. But there are other possible sources of information.

The statistics presented earlier in this paper suggest that the Earth has been visited by various galactic civilizations many times (possibly -l0-4) during geological time. It is not out of the question that artifacts of these visits still exist, or even that some kind of base is maintained (possibly automatically) within the solar system to provide continuity for successive expeditions. Because of weathering and the possibility of detection and interference by the inhabitants of the Earth, it would be preferable not to erect such a base on the Earth’s surface. The Moon seems one reasonable alternative. Forthcoming high-resolution photographic reconnaissance of the Moon from space vehicles-particularly of the back side-might bear these possibilities in mind. There are also other locales in the solar system which might prove of interest in this context. Contact with such a base would of course, provide the most direct check on the conclusions of the present paper.

Otherwise the abundance of advanced civilizations in the Galaxy could be tested by successful detection of intelligible electromagnetic signals of interstellar origin. In the next few decades, mankind will have the capability of transmitting electromagnetic signals over distances of several hundreds of light years. The receipt and return of such a signal would announce our presence as a technical civilization, and, if the conclusions of the present paper are valid, would be followed by a special contact mission. Even if an intelligible interstellar signal were received and returned today, it would be several hundreds of years before the contact mission could arrive on Earth. Hopefully, there will then still be a thriving terrestrial civilization to greet the visitors from the far distant stars.


This research was supported in part by grant NsG-126-61 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration while I was at the University of California, Berkeley, where much of the work was performed; the views presented, however, are entirely the responsibility of the author. I am indebted to J. Finkelstein, J. Lederberg, L. Sagan, M. Schmidt, C. Seeger, I. S. Shklovsky, C. Stern and W. Talbert for stimulating and encouraging discussions of various aspects of this paper, and to my fellow members of the Order of the Dolphins, especially F. D. Drake and P. M. Morrison.


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Original Document –
Original Notes –