The Space Race of the 1950s and '60s pitted the era's superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, against each other. But in 1977, one NASA team was more concerned with the Martians than with the Russians. Fifteen years after John Glenn's launch into Earth's orbit, and eight years after the U.S. put the first men on the moon, NASA rushed to launch Voyager spacecraft 1 and 2. Planetary alignment, not geopolitical competition, was the source of the urgency: In order to take advantage of a gravitational slingshot effect as each craft passed Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in sequence (saving time and fuel), NASA had to launch while the planets' orbits were lined up. That configuration creates a window of only a few months every 176 years, and one arrived in 1977; NASA hurried to meet it.
Dubbed "the Grand Tour," the Voyager mission focused on data collection, and in that regard alone it exceeded the wildest expectations. The photographs of Saturn's rings, for example, are spectacular, and we discovered active volcanoes on Io, one of Jupiter's moons. Voyager 1 also took the iconic "Pale Blue Dot" portrait of Earth, in 1990. Yet, thrilling as the Voyagers' discoveries were for the scientific community, the most unusual element of the Voyager mission was a special item placed aboard each craft.
It was a gold-plated copper LP, etched with sights and sounds of Earth, created in the wild hope of communicating with extraterrestrials. Each so-called Golden Record—along with a specially designed record player and pictorial instructions for its use—has been hurtling through the Solar System, and beyond, for 40 years (as of this past May, the two Voyagers were more than 12 billion miles from Earth), and will keep traveling long after the Sun has gone nova. These records are time capsules—messages in a bottle tossed into an ocean of stars. The likelihood that anyone or anything will find and decode one during the Voyagers' estimated billion-year lifespan remains infinitesimal. Yet the history and trajectory of the Golden Records tell a story of aspiration and innocence—the idea that humanity could put out a carefully curated, flattering version of itself in the name of intergalactic diplomacy, or at least public relations. Four decades after their launch, the questions posed by the records are as vital as ever: What if the idea works? How will we appear to another sentience? And why do we care?
There is no historical precedent for such an existential confrontation, not even in encounters with our fellow great apes. Maybe that's why the project had to happen. As philosopher Loren Eiseley once observed, "One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human."
The urge to say hello is a powerful one, and NASA had tried a similar method before. In 1972, on the sides of Pioneer crafts 10 and 11, NASA had affixed simple gold-plated plaques featuring the nude sketches of a man and a woman—the nudity was highly controversial at the time—along with the location of Earth in the Solar System, the better to show any alien interceptor what we look like and where to find us. (Silent since the early 2000s, both Pioneers are presently heading for the edge of the Solar System.) Five years later came the Voyager Golden Records. In both sets of would-be communiqués lay humanity's hopes, at once innocent and adorably vain, for connection with other intelligent beings, given world(s) enough and time.
But there was also a trans-national idealism at the heart of this grand gesture. As Carl Sagan would later say, at the hopeful close of his 1980 television series Cosmos, if a signal ever came in from the nearest star, it would be the "beginning of the deprovincialization of our planet." That is to say, it would dissolve geopolitical, cultural, and religious borders in an instant, revealing them as the arbitrary distinctions they've been all along. Sagan's 1985 novel Contact elaborates on this notion: "It's hard to think of your primary allegiance as Scottish or Slovenian or Szechuanese when you're all being hailed indiscriminately by a civilization millennia ahead of you.... Suddenly, distinctions that had earlier seemed transfixing—racial, religious, national, ethnic, linguistic, economic, and cultural—began to seem a little less pressing."
With such a lofty agenda, selections for the records had to be meaningful to the team and to a wide swath of humanity; there also had to be a kind of internal logic to the choices, presumably apparent to any highly advanced being taking it all in. Working alongside astrophysicist Frank Drake, founder of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, Sagan tasked a talented team with completing this monumental assignment in about a month. Linda Salzman Sagan (Sagan's wife at the time), who had drawn the original Pioneer sketches, fashioned a variation thereof for the aluminum cover of the Golden Record. She also coordinated the studio recordings of greetings in 55 languages, including the Persian "Hello to the residents of far skies." Artist and designer Jon Lomberg gathered almost 200 images, from astronomy to human anatomy. Ann Druyan, the project's creative director, made an aural library of the natural sounds of Earth, including thunder, volcanoes, and whale songs. Producer Timothy Ferris worked with Sagan to create a multinational mixtape, adding the dedication: "To the makers of music, all worlds, all times." The team had NASA's flyby-conforming launch date to contend with, plus the pressure of narrowing down a huge wish list to fit within the LP's laughably small data capacity: equivalent to about 100 megabytes (two hours of audio play, or 100 million characters, or several seconds of a digital TV broadcast).
Each member of the team also had to perform an unprecedented act of imagination: to try to appeal to the mind of another being, about whom they knew absolutely nothing—not even the certainty of its existence. Their work was entirely speculative, deduced from the technology an alien recipient would need in order to travel incredible distances and intercept the spacecraft (technology considerably more advanced than ours is now and will be for the foreseeable future). For all they knew, "life form" might be a misnomer. Some theorists, including SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak, suggested that a kind of artificial intelligence would be more plausible—if only for the ability to travel mind-boggling distances far more easily than an organism.
In any case, anthropocentric thinking had to be minimized. So Lomberg sought to eliminate all imaginable ambiguity in photographs—such as the one depicting a bird flying past a person, but that appeared to be attached to his head—and to emphasize certain central human traits. For example, the multiple images showing how we use our hands—such as holding food or operating a microscope—also reflect our level of technological development.
The musical selections proved a challenge in terms of cross-cultural representation. There were Navajo chants, Melanesian panpipes, and samples from other folk traditions, alongside Western compositions like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and tracks by Louis Armstrong. The team thought it best to avoid all religious music rather than strive for a representative sampling, which would have risked offending those excluded. (The same went for photos of houses of worship; the records contained neither cathedrals nor mosques nor any other sort.)
Call the Golden Record project vain or foolish, but the team's spirit of generosity, and even love, is difficult to deny. For that reason, the records are emblematic of humanity's best side, and fulfill the project's more realistic aim: to make us feel good about ourselves.
The big questions about alien life tend to ask some variation of "Are we alone in the universe?" Sagan's team operated from the assumption that we aren't, and asked instead how we might appear to our new alien friends in the best possible light. "Why not a hopeful rather than a despairing view of humanity and its possible future?" as Sagan wrote in Murmurs of Earth, his 1978 account of the making of the records. So even as the records contain feel-good scenes of humanity and nature (for example, a portrait of a woman in a floral dress breastfeeding a baby, and a shot of a field of flowers—deliberately chosen for their visual resonance), the team included no depictions of war, disease, poverty, environmental loss, anger, or loneliness. There is, of course, a hint of loneliness suggested by the very existence of the records—gold-plated invitations to potential friends. Like anyone looking to play host, we wanted to impress. But the decisions were more complicated than that. Images of war—and especially of weaponry—would have been too potentially ambiguous to risk. If this was our one chance to make contact, we had to get it right.
Still, given the results of the Drake Equation—Frank Drake's 1961 calculation of the odds of intelligent life evolving outside of Earth's biosphere—the records' only likely outcome was the stirring effect of their story and contents on the Earthlings reading about them. It would be easy to call the Golden Record project an irrelevant curiosity, a chest-puffing self-portrait—PR, even—on behalf of what was then a global population of around 4.5 billion people. But today, browsing through the Voyager collection of Earth's sights and sounds is a moving experience. If an asteroid ever destroys this planet, or when Earth reaches some natural, cosmological end, that recording—with its glorious music, multilingual greetings, and whale song—will be the only archive left that we've assembled ourselves, tracing thousands of years of civilization.
Voyager, like Pioneer before it, was more than an offshoot of scientific curiosity. It expresses an even deeper need: how we all occasionally feel like Robinson Crusoe searching the beach for Friday's footprints. Usually, we turn to each other, and to other species. But sometimes we look up to the night sky.
For those who feel lonely in the universe, this ambitious, idealistic project—even 40 years later—can help relieve the existential tension, just a little, just for a moment. In the Voyager Golden Records, we find a way of seeing our humanity reflected in the imagined eye of a friendly alien.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.