Cherry Trees to Mars

Prefatory note: My colleague, William ‘Ray’ Macauley, found an interesting set of documents during a visit to NASA headquarters.1 Ray was kind enough to share them with me. The story they tell is a good one…

In March 1976, planetary scientist Carl Sagan was in Washington, DC to address a symposium convened at the Smithsonian to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robert H. Goddard’s first liquid-fueled rocket flight. Filming of the TV series Cosmos was still a few years away but Sagan was already on his way to becoming a celebrity-scientist. The title of his talk – “A Cherry Tree to Mars” – came from a near-mythical tale associated with Goddard.

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The first page of Sagan’s essay based on his March 16, 1976 talk “A Cherry Tree to Mars”

As traditionally told, in the afternoon of October 19, 1899, the teenaged Robert Goddard went out to his back yard to trim a large cherry tree. While perched atop it, he looked out over the Massachusetts countryside and “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet…I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I had ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”2 For the rest of his life, Goddard referred to that date as his “Anniversary Day.” After recounting the cherry tree tale, Sagan commented on the importance of people who combine “visionary dedication and a remarkable technological brilliance.” Such focus – for Goddard, it was building the tools of space flight – comes at a price. Sagan noted that Goddard’s diary contains a “flash of poignant self-insight.” “God pity,” Goddard wrote later in his life, “a one-dream man.”3

At the end of his talk, Sagan suggested that NASA have a “modest celebration” on October 19, 1976. The date, the 77th anniversary of Goddard’s vision, would be marked by two functioning Martian orbiters and two landers roaming the Red Planet – spacecraft “whose origins can be traced with utter confidence back to a boy in a cherry tree in a New England autumn in 1899.”

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Sagan with a model of the Viking lander

A few weeks after Sagan’s talk, the head of NASA, James Fletcher, wrote Sagan to thank him for his “intriguing” talk. So far as the modest celebration for October 19, 1976? “We’ll go to work on it,” Fletcher said.

So what did the space agency come up with? Check back for my next post and see how NASA borrowed a page from Walt Disney…


  1. Ray is a scholar affiliated with the “The Future in the Stars: European Astroculture and Extraterrestrial Life in the 20th Century” research group at the Freie Universität Berlin. []
  2. Recounted in Tom D. Crouch, Aiming for the Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), p. 20. []
  3. In 1938, a storm finally destroyed the old cherry tree. A distraught Goddard wrote in his diary – “Cherry tree down. Have to carry on alone.” []