Carl Sagan spent his childhood immersed in Mars. The future scientist, an avid reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s science fiction, would pass evenings lying in vacant lots, looking up at the sky and “thinking myself to that twinkling red place.” He fantasized about Martians, their bodies a kaleidoscope of color—Burroughs’s Mars had two more primary colors than Earth—with removable heads but decidedly human forms. “I didn’t realize then the chauvinism of making people on another planet like us.”
But in 1965 the first flyby mission to Mars returned photos of pristine rock—and nothing else. It was a gut punch. The New York Times declared Mars a dead planet. “The fanciful Martian megafauna,” John Updike wrote many years later for this magazine, “were swept into oblivion.” Sagan was undeterred: The photos were grainy and inconclusive and showed only one percent of the planet.
In 1967 Sagan wrote a feature story for National Geographic that explored the question that had occupied his thoughts as a child: Is there life on Mars? The piece included a rendering of a theoretical Martian, to which he gave serious attention. In correspondence with his editors, Sagan expressed dismay at an early draft of the art, saying the Martian resembled “a man dressed up in a turtle suit.” He envisioned “a benignMartian vegetarian” with no eyes. “Let’s have him find his way in the daytime by his little red tendrils and at night he will dig a hole.”
The final painting (above) satisfied Sagan, his years of study evident in the details: The creature’s spindly limbs suit Mars’s low gravity; its glass-like shield blocks ultraviolet radiation. The art was a paean to the Martian imaginings of Sagan’s youth. In 1996, shortly before his death, Sagan recorded a message to future Mars explorers: “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”
Natasha Daly is an assistant editor at National Geographic covering animal welfare, wildlife crime, and culture.