Saganesque: NASA’s Chris McKay

Dear friend of Wonderfest,

Carl Sagan means a lot to Wonderfest. Since 1997, the fine print on our literature has often read: “Dedicated to the memory of Carl Sagan.” And from 2002 through 2010, Wonderfest proudly awarded the $5000 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization to nine Bay Area researchers who “contributed mightily to the public understanding and appreciation of science.”


Wonderfest lost funding for the Sagan Prize in 2011.* Since then, I have fantasized about which public-spirited scientists most deserve a re-funded Sagan Prize. Nobody comes to mind more often than NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay.

Evidently, Dr. McKay is a man who just can’t say “No” to speaking invitations. His name appears with remarkable regularity on Bay Area science event calendars. And a panel discussion on Mars, or on space travel, or on the origin (or end!) of life will be without him only if he is off doing research in the Atacama Desert or the Canadian Arctic.

Like Carl Sagan in his heyday, Chris McKay can opine with authority on astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Significant, too, is McKay’s willingness to address controversial science topics. He has taken provocative public positions on the terraforming of Mars, on human-vs.-robotic space exploration, and on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life and intelligence.

The Road to Europa, Chris McKay

The creative photo of Chirs McKay, at left, belies his friendliness and sense of humor. The image comes from a biographical feature article in the March issue of Discover magazine. As if to proclaim McKay’s “public scientist” status even more forcefully, the June issue of Scientific American includes his article (with Victor Parro García) entitled How to Search for Life on Mars. This researcher cares about public enlightenment!

Accordingly, on Monday evening, June 30, at SoMa StrEat Food Park, Chris McKay will make his record-setting seventh Wonderfest appearance! The Road to Europa is a FREE event produced in collaboration with SF in SF. Dr. McKay will present expert commentary on perhaps the best science fiction film of 2013, Europa Report. After the movie’s screening, Chris will address its three key scientific features: the survivability of a trip to the Jupiter system; human vs. robot exploratory performance; and the type of life that might conceivably call Europa’s ocean “home.” What a deep treat it will be!

Europa Report

I cannot praise Chris McKay more highly than to describe his contributions to Bay Area science as Saganesque. Someday, Chris WILL be able to accept Wonderfest’s revived Carl Sagan Prize — although, as a NASA employee, he might have to refuse the cash! Until then, the best we can do is to offer him our eager questions and thunderous applause. I hope you’ll register for The Road to Europa, and enjoy the penetrating insight, dry wit, and fierce dedication of Dr. Christopher P. McKay.

Wondrous regards,

Tucker Hiatt, Founding Executive Director
* Annual Reviews generously supported the Sagan Prize for nine years. If you know of another public-spirited organization that might help Wonderfest to reestablish this highly successful encourager of public science, please drop me a line at