|THE GOLDEN RECORD
by Emmi Conner I have spent a lot of my life looking up at the night sky, wondering what surrounds the stars that we can see from Earth. I’ve dedicated countless hours to talking and thinking about the possibility that there’s something else out there, maybe even someone else out there. And, maybe, they’re thinking about the same things. Maybe they sit outside every night with their intergalactic six-legged dog, feeling the blue-tinted grass on their skin, and wondering about what lies beyond. Maybe they look at our sun, as part of a bigger constellation from their perspective, and wonder how cool it would be if something lived around it. Maybe our sun is their Sirius, the brightest star in their sky every night. Maybe they’re trying to figure out how to send us a message.
The Voyager 1 space probe was sent out into the skies by NASA on September 5, 1977. In that same year, the first Apple II computers were released; Star Wars premiered in theaters all across the world; Billboard’s Top Hot 100 Songs featured artists like Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, and Queen; everyone who was anyone wore plaid pants and fringed leather jackets; and, for the very first time in human history, we prepared a message for the rest of the universe to hear. That message explains almost every aspect of human life, both biologically and personally, through 115 images, 27 songs, 21 sounds, and 55 greetings. That message is called the Golden Record, and it’s our opening line to interstellar civilizations that we aren’t even sure exist.
In the beginning of Voyager 1’s conception, the probe was only meant to accomplish a flyby of Jupiter, Saturn, and one of Saturn’s moons called Titan. NASA scientists didn’t expect the spacecraft to survive past the exploration of Saturn. However, Voyager 1 eventually became part of a larger exploration project called the Grand Tour that was meant to take photos of the outer gas giants of our solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Even as a part of this larger expedition, no one expected the probe to go as far as it has gone or to see as much as it has seen. Voyager 1 is the only man-made object to go beyond the borders of our solar system, which means it now flies in interstellar space, the space between solar systems of our galaxy. It’s one of the fastest machines we’ve ever made, travelling through empty space at about eleven miles per second. According to NASA scientists, Voyager 1 and the Golden Record it carries will likely spend hundreds of thousands of years roaming the Milky Way, hoping to be found by some form of intelligent life. If its message is ever found by other life, the Record could very well be what finally connects us to the rest of our galaxy.
When NASA decided they wanted to equip Voyager 1 with an extraterrestrial communication, they enlisted one of the most popular astronomers in history, a man who is second only to Galileo himself, Dr. Carl Sagan. Sagan was given the almost impossible task of deciding what should be put on the Golden Record. It was up to him to come up with an accurate representation of not just all of human history up to 1977, but also the history of the Earth and of our solar system. He had to figure out a way to explain an entire world and the worlds that surround it to a species he’d never met and knew nothing about. They don’t speak any of our Earthly languages, they’ve never experienced any of our cultures, and they may not even have the physical ability to hear, see, and feel in the same way we do. How do you possibly communicate with that? How do you give understanding to something you can’t understand? That was what Dr. Sagan had to figure out.
Of course, Sagan didn’t work alone. He formed a committee of his colleagues from Cornell University to help put our best foot forward with our first big step into the universe. People from almost all backgrounds from Native American to Japanese to Italian to American stepped in to help with the project, providing a diverse lineup of languages, dialects, and backgrounds to offer our cosmic neighbors. Even the people who weren’t able to add to the Golden Record were fascinated by it. People all over the world were glued to their televisions as they waited anxiously while Voyager 1 was prepared for launch in the months leading up to September 1977. In the years following the launch, we were amazed by the pictures it sent back to Earth of Jupiter’s storms and Saturn’s rings. Space travel began to seem like the next big thing, especially in America. Two years after the launch, Voyager 1 got its first big moment in pop culture. The 1979 movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, featured the fictional probe Voyager 6 and its journey back home to Earth.
The popularity of Voyager 1 and the Golden Record only added to the pressure that was already weighing on Carl Sagan. It was time for him to figure out a way to present the human race through a medium that would be understandable to extraterrestrials. He started with the construction of the Record itself. It had to be able to withstand the harsh and unforgiving conditions of space for an unforeseeable amount of time, so Sagan needed to make sure it was equipped with protective metal. Eventually, he and his committee decided that a 12-inch copper phonograph record plated in gold would do. Sagan then moved on to the cover of the Record, engraving instructions on how to play it. I guess he knew that most of the aliens out there in the universe aren’t used to spinning vinyl when they’re looking for some entertainment. The instructions explain how to construct the images that are coded into the Record, and they show the first image given: a circle.
Sagan included 114 other images that range from a simple breakdown of our number system to a Chinese dinner party. Some of the images explain human biology, anatomy, and reproduction; however, human reproduction had to be explained through diagrams because sending nude pictures of men and women into space was prohibited by NASA. They didn’t want aliens getting the wrong idea about humanity. Other pictures give our stellar address and show the planet that we call “Home.” Pictures of people who make up the world’s varying races and cultures take up a lot of the Record, showing that we are a diverse species, but we all share the same basics of human anatomy. Some of these pictures are meant to show the bonds that form between humans while others represent the way we use our senses of sight and smell. There are landscapes of ocean shores, islands, sand dunes, forests, and other topographies of the Earth. Some images exhibit the different forms of life that inhabit the planet, like frogs, trees, insects, elephants, dolphins, and even a picture of Jane Goodall studying chimps in the wild. The only major aspects of human life that are not shown through the images of the Golden Record are war, disease, crime, and religion. Dr. Sagan and his committee decided that depicting these parts of humanity wouldn’t be a good idea in our first communication with other life. The human race is depicted in a very positive light on the Record since it is meant to make a good impression with whoever or whatever eventually intercepts it.
Also included on the Golden Record is a playlist of songs that represent human history and culture. Groups from around the world offered their music to Sagan and his team to consider putting in the record. In the end, 27 songs were chosen to be played for interstellar ears, if aliens even have ears. Bach has three pieces that made the final cut, Beethoven has two, and Mozart has one. Among other nations, China, Peru, Australia, Japan, and Mexico all chose songs to feature. Members of the Navajo Nation submitted a Night Chant to the Record. As far as American classics go, Sagan included “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry and “Melancholy Blues”by Louis Armstrong. My personal favorite song on the Record, though, is “Dark Was the Night” by Blind Willie Johnson. I like to imagine that’s what Voyager 1 is jamming to while it drifts through space.
Along with the songs on the Golden Record, Dr. Sagan also thought to include some sounds from Earth. The sounds of volcanoes, earthquakes, and thunder storms explain the destructive capabilities of our planet and its atmosphere. The sounds you might hear during a late Spring night spent on a back porch looking up at the stars are played through the chirping of crickets and the low rumble of a frog’s croak. A few animals are featured on the Record, including hyenas, elephants, and birds. In my opinion, the laughing of a pack of hyenas sounds about as welcoming as a gunshot, but it still made the cut. Sagan even included howls from a wild dog and barking from a tame dog, showing the extraterrestrials that find the Record that we’ve learned to live alongside the other creatures of our world. Morse Code is explained through the sounds of communication between two ships. One of the last things aliens will hear in this portion of the Record is the pop of a kiss, followed by a crying child and a cooing mother. As the baby whines, his mother says to him, “Oh, come on now. Be a good boy. Be a good boy.” Of all the Earthly sounds Sagan could have chosen, I don’t think a better one exists.
Finally, the last things that will be played on the Record, should it ever be intercepted by intelligent life, are greetings in 55 different languages from humans all around the planet. This part of the Voyager 1 project was led by Carl Sagan’s wife, writer and artist Linda Salzman Sagan. She instructed people to provide a brief greeting to possible extraterrestrial life and got back a variety of recordings. The first greeting on the Record is simply “Namaste.” The Aramaic and Hebrew greetings are the shortest and both feature only one word: “peace.” One of the longer ones comes from the Min dialect of the Amoy language, who said, “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time.” The English greeting was recited by a young American boy and says, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.” The only individualistic greeting on the Record was spoken in Swedish by one of Dr. Sagan’s colleagues at Cornell University and says, “Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca on the planet Earth.” US President Jimmy Carter also added a message to this section of the Record, in which he expressed his hope along with the rest of the world “to join a community of galactic civilizations.”
Voyager 1 has been zooming through space for over forty years now, carrying the message that might one day connect humanity with our interstellar neighbors. Dr. Carl Sagan, unfortunately, died on December 20, 1996 at the age of 62, taking with him the mind that has propelled the field of astronomy forward in countless capacities.
In November of 2017, Voyager 1 fired its TCM thrusters, extending its mission by an additional two to three years, meaning its almost-fifty-year-long mission will most likely end in 2025. After that point, Voyager 1 will no longer sustain the technology it needs to communicate with or be controlled by NASA scientists, here on Earth. The probe will continue to journey through interstellar space until one day, when it may be found and retrieved by the other inhabitants of our Milky Way galaxy. Until that day, we will continue to wait while our message in a bottle floats through the wide and vast cosmic ocean that we have cast it into. About the Author:Emmi Conner is a senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, studying Creative Writing and History. She typically writes historical fiction and crime fiction, though she also loves research-based nonfiction. She is currently working on her first novel and hopes to have it finished by May 2019. Conner grew up in a small town called Harris, North Carolina and now lives in Wilmington. This is her first published piece.