In my last post I wrote about the twin Voyager spacecrafts, still hurtling through the heliosphere some 10 billion miles from Earth, and still communicating daily with a handful of engineers affiliated with NASA/JPL’s Deep Space Network. That's impressive enough, but so is that fact that if any of those engineers are under the age of 32, they weren’t even born when Voyagers 1 and 2 launched in 1977.
This stop is also Voyager-related, and specifically about the Voyager Golden Record or simply the Gold Record: the gold-covered phonograph record attached to the side of both crafts. Embedded in each disc are sounds and images from Earth -- artifacts essentially about ourselves collectivley comprising a message to possible extraterrestrial civilzations that might one day discover them. As was also mentioned earlier, the story of how they were proposed, created, and permitted to travel on the probes at all is as interesting as the content itself.
The definitive source describing the origin and content of the record is Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, co-authored by Carl Sagan, F.D. [Frank] Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan. The original edition was published by Random House a year after the launch, but copies of it and later editions are still available from Amazon and AbeBooks at an affordable price. We are fortunate that they are, because the authors -- an accomplished group of astronomers, artists, writers, and educators -- gave very serious thought to what the discs might contain.
But first things first. The initial gathering to discuss the Voyager message took place in Honolulu at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 1977, between Carl Sagan, his soon-to-be wife Linda Salzman, Frank Drake, and possibly others. Drake's account is in the book and makes for interesting reading because he also supplies helpful context. Before Voyager 1 and 2 there were messages sent with NASA's Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts (launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively) and from the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico (in 1974). Sagan, Salzman, Drake, and others were involved in these, too, and they benefited from the experience.
Among the lessons learned by the group responsible for the Pioneer message content: never engrave a naked man and woman on a gold anodized aluminum plate bound to leave the solar system. It became abundantly clear after the launch that many Americans don't especially like the idea of their tax dollars being used to send "porn" into space.
The backlash had far-reaching effects. As the group meeting in early 1977 soon found out, NASA was committed to avoiding further public scorn (and political problems) with Voyager. Not only did pre-launch photos of the spacecrafts purposefully show them from angles that hid the records from view, the agency also nixed an embedded photograph of a nude male and female (a silhoutte was substitued on the sly). But the real shocker came later: NASA conveniently rejected the disc on a technicality after it was completed. In an editorial to the New York Times commemmorating the 30th anniversay of the Voyager program, project member Timothy Ferris explained why:
"Late one night in a New York sound studio, when we’d finished cutting the master, I inscribed the words, 'To the makers of music — all worlds, all times,' in the 'takeout grooves' next to the label. (The Voyager record is a metal version of the 33 1/3 vinyl records of the day, recorded at half-speed to double its data content. Etching an inscription between the takeout grooves was a trope I’d picked up from John Lennon.) A NASA quality-control officer checked the record against specifications and found that while the record’s size, weight, composition and magnetic properties were all in order, its blueprints made no provision for an inscription.
So the record was rejected as a nonstandard part, and the space agency prepared to replace it with a blank disc. Sagan had to persuade the NASA administrator to sign a waiver before the record could fly."
Critics and bureaucrats aside, many appreciate Sagan's success. Each record includes 118 images; the first two bars of Beethoven's Cavatina from the String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130; greetings from the President of the United States (Jimmy Carter); greetings from the Secretary General of the United Nations (Kurt Waldheim); greetings from 14 UN delegates; greetings in 54 human languages, "greetings" from a Humpback whale; the names of many U.S. senators and representatives (more on this below); a 12-minute audiory essay consisting of 19 "Sounds of Earth;" and 27 musical selections.
The variety of images and sounds is impressive. Jon Lomberg assembled the pictures of Earth. Linda Salzman acquired the greetings in human languages. Timothy Ferris selected the music. Ann Druyan was responsible for the Sounds of Earth essay and served the project as creative director. (Druyan later co-wrote the Cosmos television series and co-produced the film Contact. She and Carl Sagan married in 1981.) Each part of the production had its own challenges and drama, which are chronicled by the authors in chapters titled "Pictures of Earth," "A Voyager's Greetings," "The Sounds of Earth," and "Voyager's Music." Within them the actual images, sounds, and music are described in the order they appear on the disc, often with behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Not surprisingly, Carl Sagan guided the entire project. This was no small feat; the spacecrafts launched in August and September 1977, giving a window of only seven months to get the job done. His own contributions to the book -- "For Future Times and Beings," "The Voyager Mission to the Outer Solar System," and an Epilogue -- are gems placing the record project and the mission in helpful perspective. He also provides anecdotes that instruct and sometimes amuse. Here's one about what happened after President Carter decided to add a greeting:
" . . . NASA officials were concerned that the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution might imply that if the President could greet the stars, so must the representatives of the legislative branch of government. After weighing the matter for about a day, NASA decided it was essential to include on the Voyager record at least the names of a large number of senators and representatives, especially those whose committees had cognizance of NASA activities. As a result, four additional pictures were added at the very last moment . . . I was at least pleased that NASA did not insist on including the names of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, as the logical conclusion of the separation-of-powers argument. This part of the Voyager message is without doubt a signal to down here rather than to up there."
Today you can sample almost the entire interstellar record on the NASA/JPL Voyager Interstellar Mission site. (The chimpanzee track on the Sounds From Earth page makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it but, hey, I'm easily entertained.) The Golden Record Flash page is worth a visit, too.
Murmurs of Earth ends with Carl Sagan's words describing a possible encounter between one of the Voyager crafts and intelligent life in the vicinity of star A + 79 3888, which, at the time the book was written, appeared to be the closest star either craft would pass after leaving our solar system and traveling perhaps 60,000 years:
"They would wonder about us. They would know that 60,000 years is a long period of time in the hisory of civilizations. They would recognize the tentativeness of our society, its tenuous acquaintence with technology and wisdom together. Had we destroyed ourselves or had we gone on to greater things? Some of the Voyager music intentionally expresses a kind of cosmic loneliness, which would perhaps communicate itself across the expanse of light-years and the differences in evolutionary histories. We, too, were time-capsuling, searching the skies and seeking another civilization with which to communicate.
But one thing would be clear about us: no one sends such a message on a journey, to other worlds and beings, without a positive passion for the future. For all the possible vagaries of the message, they could be sure that we were a species endowed with hope and perseverence, at least a little intelligence, substantial generosity and a palpable zest to make contact with the cosmos."
The Voyager mission and the message attached to each spacecraft are all of this, and more. They are symbols of human culture reflecting the idea that the cosmos evolves and includes life -- what historian Steven Dick calls the "biological universe as a cosmological worldview."
Clearly, when we listen to the sounds or look at the images embedded in the discs, one does not have to be an astronomer or engineer to tap into those human traits expressed by Sagan, or imagine an encounter one distant day ahead.
That we can do this so easily suggests the biological universe, our current worldview of the cosmos in the extraterrestrial life debate is, for many, as pervasive as star dust.
Next stop: Worldviews
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter