The release of our recent Carl Sagan episode in The Experimenters, got us thinking about rock star scientists and the celebrities that love science and space. One of Sagan’s biggest fans is Seth MacFarlane (the creator of Family Guy). MacFarlane is so into space that he helped Neil Degrasse Tyson relaunch Sagan’s seminal series Cosmos.
In 2012, he put up the money to purchase over 800 boxes of papers and other material from the Sagan’s widow and then donated all the materials to the Library of Congress so that they would be available to the public. Check out the Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress. You can even watch home movies of Sagan as a boy.
Inspired by MacFarlane, we’ve rounded-up a list of notable names who are fascinated by the Great Unknown
David Bowie’s persona was always out of this world. He scored his first hit with “Space Oddity” in 1969. Time was certainly on his side for that one with “Ground control to Major Tom…” resonating with a nation that had just watched the first man step on the moon.
Space, especially its isolation and loneliness, became a theme that ran throughout Bowie’s career. He even played an alien in Nicolas Roeg’s 70’s cult-classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. The film is a bit off-kilter and campy but definitely worth a watch, if only to spend a couple hours transfixed by the crazy beauty of young Bowie.
Space invader/rock n’ roll bitch Ziggy Stardust was his most otherworldly character, but even in Blackstar, the album completed just before his death, he was looking towards the sky, singing “Look up here, I’m in Heaven…”
Rather than accept Bowie’s recent death, we’re more inclined to believe that he was a spaceboy after all, and it was just time for him to go back to his home planet.
Over the years, Richard Branson has helmed a record company, an airline, and a global communications company, but for the last decade or so his main focus has been his commercial spaceflight endeavor Virgin Galactic. The company has been trying to develop a spacecraft suitable for commercial space travel since 2004; Branson unveiled SpaceShipTwo in 2009, telling his would-be passengers – who had each put down $200,000 to reserve a spot – that flights would begin in 2011. Multiple delays followed and the company was dealt a huge blow in 2014 when one of the spaceships broke apart during a test flight, killing one test pilot and injuring another. A new launch date hasn’t been announced yet, but over 700 people – including Leonardo DiCaprio, Katy Perry, Brad Pitt, and a host of other famous names – have put down their money for a chance to go into space.
America’s favorite spokesperson for science education really, really wants to be an astronaut. He’s applied to the astronaut program quite a few times over the years but, alas, he’s been rejected every time. He says he’d probably need a PhD to get in – he holds a Bsc in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell – but he just doesn’t have the time it would take to pursue those studies. Back in 1999, Nye talked to the St. Petersburg Times about his desire to go into space: “Apparently, people who travel in space never look at the world in quite the same way. It changes your life. I think it would be the next logical thing to help me pursue my goal of changing the world.”
Hanks is the second wanna-be astronaut on our list, though Hanks did at least get a chance to act out his childhood fantasies when he took on the role of astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. During the movie’s promotion Hanks revealed the depths of his childhood fascination with space exploration:
“I would put a brick in the bottom of my pants and sit at the bottom of the pool breathing through a…breathing through a garden hose and kind of, like, float. And I would have these little plastic tools; take apart the pool ladder and put it back together again because I wanted to be doing a service in zero gravity of outer space and also hearing the (heavy breaths) through the garden hose because that was as close as I could get to the tactile feeling of being in space.” – Hanks to ABC News, 2002
Hanks is also one of a handful of celebrities who’s purchased a ticket into space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Like fellow entrepreneur Branson, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos has set his sights on the stars. He has his own space tourism company, Blue Origin, which is developing its own vehicle for commercial space travel. Bezos has often talked about watching the Apollo moon landing as a kid and cites it as one of his most inspiring experiences, so it’s no wonder that he has also taken his love for all things space to the bottom of the sea. In 2013, Bezos funded a successful mission to locate and recover the remains of the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo mission into space. His team retrieved several of Saturn V’s booster engines and, with NASA’s permission, donated the restored artifacts to Seattle’s Museum of Flight and to the Smithsonian.
During the early years of Queen guitarist Brian May was concurrently pursuing a PhD in Astrophysics (his area of study focused on interplanetary dust) at Imperial College London but he abandoned his studies when the band’s success picked up momentum. In 2006 May decided to restart his PhD studies and his thesis, A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, was approved in 2007. Last year he joined NASA’s New Horizons team as a science collaborator, helping sort and interpret data as it was received from the spacecraft. He even compiled the first stereo image of Pluto!
Bonus: Muhammad Ali
In one of our early episodes, the former heavyweight champion of the world tells two teenagers in 1966 that he wants to fight on Mars.