Voyager 1 and the Golden Records

May 18, 2015 | Posted in: Sociology

For those born after 1980, the space explorations of the ’60s and ’70s are old news, but not memories. We grew up in a time when the moon was no longer a beckoning frontier, and where the greatest discoveries about our universe are being illuminated right from the earthy ground we stand upon, no rocket ship needed. The hero astronaut is no longer lauded in song on the radio, or splashed across front pages on news stands. Images of celestial marvels are as common as cat videos, and play the backdrop on millions of computer screens. And while the photographs streaming in from space are still marvelous, it’s harder to get us to marvel.

Detail of Jupiter's atmosphere, imaged by Voyager 1.

Detail of Jupiter’s atmosphere, imaged by Voyager 1.

There’s much about early space exploration that is lost to history for those growing up today, and I just heard the story of the Voyager 1’s golden record a few months ago. September 5, 1977, a decade before my birth, a robotic probe was strapped to a rocket ship and launched into space. It was christened Voyager 1 and its primary mission was to get close and friendly with Jupiter and Saturn, sending back to Earth the first detailed images of these planetary relatives. But once this directive was completed, Voyager 1 began its real voyage, striking a steady pace towards the outer limits of our solar system. Wanderlust in its most extreme form, Voyager 1 is our emissary into the universe, carrying with it precious cargo: a 12″ gold-plated copper disk inscribed with some images (encoded in analog form) and many sounds. It’s a phonographic record, and on its surface are drawings that hope to instruct an alien life form on how to play the disk.

The explanatory diagram on the Voyager 1's Golden Record.

The explanatory diagrams on the Voyager 1’s golden record.

Entitled “The Sounds of Earth,” the album offers a miscellany of earthly auditory marvels, beginning with greetings (spoken in many languages) for whatever life may be in the universe. There are tracks of rain falling, thunder breaking, waves crashing, and a volcano erupting; whales singing and humming; chimps hullabalooing; a countdown to a space shuttle blastoff; a mother comforting her child; morse code beeping a beat; a ship’s guttural horn blast; the sound of a farm accompanied by goats bleating, birds singing, a dog’s bark, and anvil falling on metal; the wind tearing through a terrain with a thrilling wolf’s howl; the human heartbeat; and musical flavorings from the world over: classical compositions, southern blues, aboriginal songs of Australia, a wedding song from Peru, a night chant from the Navajo people, Louie Armstrong’s horn and “Johnny B. Goode” to rock an alien life form.

Carl Sagan headed the committee responsible for deciding what audio of Earth would be sent off as our interstellar diplomat, and they chose a selection of our best attributes, the beauty and power of nature, and the sweet sounds we humans can croon and utter. Voyager 1 has entered interstellar space, and at this precise moment of my typing it’s 19,542,887,170 KM away from the Earth, journeying at a speed of 38,000 mph. By the time I had finished the last sentence it was 19,542,887,459 KM from the Earth. Even at this great speed our solitary probe will not reach another star for 40,000 years. By then of course its instruments will have long shut down, all communication back to earth gone silent. But the record will survive aboard Voyager 1, and it will travel the Milky Way until the probe either collides with something or is retrieved by some one.

Other side of the Golden Record, entitled T"he Sounds of Earth."

Other side of the golden record, entitled “The Sounds of Earth.”

Sagan himself knew the odds are terribly against our record ever being played, but he also knew the outcome wasn’t the point:

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

One of the last images Voyager 1 sent back (before its camera was turned off to conserve energy) was the now famous “Pale Blue Dot” photograph, a unique portrait of Earth. Sagan specifically asked that this image be captured, knowing how such a picture could alter the way we humans see our earthly home. Below you see it, and among the vertical bands of suspended sunlight, on the very last ray to the right, there is a tiny white speck just about in the middle of the photo: that’s Earth.

Pale Blue Dot

Sagan eloquently brings home the essence of this image:

    “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

To hear some of the audio tracks from the golden record click here.

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.