Last weekend, the Voyager spacecraft, launched from Earth in 1977, left the solar system and headed into interstellar space. As it did, the ship carried an unusual calling card, designed to introduce Earth to any alien being that the Voyager might pass.
Traveling now billions of kilometers out in space are the voices and sounds of humans and animals living on Earth in 1977. They are bolted to the side of Voyager 1 in the form of a gold-plated phonograph record containing the sounds of our planet.
"The record is a conventional long-playing phonograph record except that it is made of copper and it is covered in gold and then it is put inside a titanium case to protect it,” said Tim Ferris, who mixed the audio that went on the record.
Ferris was one of a small group of people who worked to convince NASA to attach the record to Voyager’s side. The original idea, according to Annie Druyan, another member of the group, came from astronomer Frank Drake, at the University of California.
“We wanted to convey to the extraterrestrials that we imagined what it was like to be alive in the beautiful Spring of 1977, and it seemed to Frank that at the time that the best way to compress as much information as possible in a very small space was to do it on a phonograph record,” she said.
And there’s plenty of information there. The record contains greetings in 59 human languages. It has 118 pictures of life on earth, and 27 pieces of music exemplifying the diversity of human creation.
“There is music on the record from Europe and the United States,” said Ferris. "But also from Africa, the South Pacific and South America... Georgia, Russia, all these places - China, India."
Shortly after American astronauts returned from space in 1968, NASA released a photograph of the Earth rising from behind the Moon. According to Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, that photo deeply touched people like Drake and his partner on the gold record project, the scientist and TV celebrity Carl Sagan.
She said,“Knowing that that picture was taken by a human being I think profoundly changed the thoughts of these people and really made them start thinking about ‘If we are this pale blue dot in this ocean of vastness, then how do we communicate something about who we are?’”
It made them think carefully about how they might convey the greetings, the art and the talent of all humanity…not just the nation that sent the spacecraft up.
“The Voyager record represents a step along a long process of humans realizing that we are not at the center of the universe and that our story is probably far from being the only story,” Ferris said
The technology they used may seem archaic today. But actually, Weitekamp says it has advantages over some of today’s gadgets.
“It's a really durable technology that has proven to be a great way to record sound," she said. "If you have digital sound, you have to have the right software in order to decode it or it doesn’t work.”
And she says, if a spacecraft were launched today with a message for aliens, it might still be a wise technology to use. So that’s the medium. As for the message they chose, Ferris says you couldn’t have picked anything better.
“You can't say that an Indian raga or a piece by Bach or a Japanese Shakuhachi piece ‘means’ something that you can put into words. It is its own end product," he said. "It means really what it is. Similar to things in nature. A flower isn't a way of expressing something else. It is the end product. It is what it is.”