David Pescovitz: 40 years ago this week, NASA launched the second of two Voyagers into the solar system on an audacious mission
The Golden Records affixed to it contain music and knowledge that highlight the best of humanity, he writes
Editor’s Note: David Pescovitz is a research director at the Institute for the Future, editor/partner at Boing Boing, and co-founder of Ozma Records. The Voyager Golden Record is now available as a vinyl box set and a book/CD package from Ozma Records. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Forty years ago this week, NASA launched the second of two Voyager spacecraft on a grand tour of the solar system and into the mysteries of interstellar space. It was an audacious mission that continues to this day – as the probes launched in 1977 still call home with new data about the cosmos.
Attached to each of these spacecraft is a beautiful golden phonograph record containing a message for any extraterrestrial intelligence that might encounter it, perhaps billions of years from now. This enchanting artifact, officially called the Voyager Interstellar Record, may be the last vestige of our civilization after we are gone forever.
Right now, Voyager 1 is almost 21 billion kilometers away from us in interstellar space, barreling along at 17 kilometers per second. It is the farthest human-made object from Earth. The slightly slower Voyager 2 is at the outermost edge of our solar system, where the sun’s plasma wind blows against cosmic dust and gas. Even at such astonishing distances, those shiny gold records affixed to their hulls have incredible resonance way back here on Earth. Why?
Compiled in just a few months by a dynamic committee led by Carl Sagan, the golden record is both an inspired scientific effort and a compelling piece of conceptual art.
“The launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet,” Sagan wrote in “Pale Blue Dot.”
Indeed, the Voyager Golden Record is a reminder of what we can achieve when we are at our best, and that our future really is up to all of us.
It’s a story of our planet expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad peoples and eras, from Bach and Blind Willie Johnson to Benin percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Natural sounds — birds, a train, a baby’s cry, a kiss — are collaged into a lovely audio poem called “Sounds of Earth.” There are spoken greetings in dozens of human languages— and one whale language — and more than 100 images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are. A diagram on the aluminum cover of the record explains how to play it and where it came from.
As an objet d’art and design, the Voyager Record represents deep insights about communication, context, and the power of media. In the realm of science, it raises fundamental questions about our place in the universe.
Two years ago, my friends Timothy Daly, Lawrence Azerrad, and I embarked on a journey to release the Voyager Record to the public on vinyl for the first time. We launched a Kickstarter to crowdfund our effort through pre-orders of a lavish box set containing three translucent gold LPs, a book, and an art print. The response was astounding. More than 10,000 people pledged their support, including many who told us they don’t even own a record player. The “Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition” became the most funded music project in Kickstarter’s history. We donated 20% of the net profits from that limited Kickstarter edition to the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University.
It isn’t that the Voyager Record seduces us with a nostalgia trip to an era of wide-eyed optimism. In fact, the record is perhaps more relevant now than when the two spacecraft launched back in 1977. As the original golden record’s producer, Timothy Ferris, wrote in the liner notes for our project, the Voyagers are on a journey not just through space but also through time. The record is a time capsule but it is also timeless. It sparks the imagination. It provokes us to think about the future and our civilization’s place in it. It exudes a sense of hope for a better tomorrow.
Listen here to an audio sampler of the Voyager Golden Record
When astronomer and technical director Frank Drake, designer Jon Lomberg, and their colleagues set about curating the images to encode in the record’s grooves, they agreed from the outset to avoid depictions of war, crime, poverty and disease. It was a conscious decision that the interstellar message could reflect only positively on our planet. The golden record’s photo sequence is a visual time capsule of Earth. It’s a snapshot of life on our planet, and an aspirational one at that. Similarly, the greetings in Earth’s most widely spoken languages are words of peace and goodwill.
“There were two audiences for whom this message was being prepared —t hose of us who inhabit Earth, and those who exist on the planets of distant stars,” wrote Linda Salzman Sagan (then Sagan’s wife), who assembled the greetings, in the book “Murmurs of Earth.”
In terms of the musical selections, two criteria guided Ferris, creative director Ann Druyan (now Sagan’s widow), and the others as they selected the recordings: “That we include a variety of music representing many cultures rather than just the one that had built and launched the spacecraft, and that we strive to make a ‘good’ record,” Ferris wrote.
Late last year, Tim Daly and I sat with Ferris around a pristine vintage tape deck in New York’s historic Battery Mastering Studios to hear the Voyager Golden Record master tapes, stored for 40 years in an underground bunker until Sony Music’s intrepid archivist Matt Kelly located and retrieved them for our project. Beethoven, bagpipes, Chuck Berry, gamelan music, and the blues washed over us. The greetings in 55 languages sounded as if the individuals behind those voices were in the room with us. It was awe inspiring. As the interstellar message’s outro of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat faded out, Ferris looked over at us: “It’s a good record, right?” he said with a smile. Yes. It most certainly is.
Get our free weekly newsletter
For me, the Voyager Record lies at the intersection of my lifelong love of art, music and science with my career as a professional futurist. I’m a researcher at the Institute for the Future, a 50-year-old nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley that helps companies, civic organizations and the public systematically consider the future to make better decisions in the present. And the first law of futures thinking is that there are no facts about the future. The future is a place where anything is possible, even if not probable. Futures thinking is fueled by wonder and curiosity. Most importantly, thinking about the future is an inherently hopeful practice. It connects us to our humanity just as the Voyager golden record does.
We’ll probably never know whether an extraterrestrial civilization ever listens to the golden record. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. The Voyager Record is a gift from humanity to the cosmos. But it is also a gift to humanity. It’s a stunning manifestation of what our civilization can accomplish through creativity, passion and science.
An earlier version of this piece misnamed the spacecraft launched on September 5, 1977. Voyager 2 was launched before Voyager 1.