The Voyager Golden Record: Humanity's Soft Place to Land
Wishing You a Peaceful Future from the Earthlings
There's an X-Files poster on my bedroom door. You know the one: a grainy photo of a UFO blown up against a canopy of pine trees with "I WANT TO BELIEVE" written in block letters across the bottom. TheX-Files poster. And while I deign to admit it, I'm a poser. I've seen maybe 10 full episodes of the show (and read the two fun YA prequels about teenage Scully and Mulder solving crimes in the 70s) and have no intention of continuing. Serialized media and my commitment issues aren't the best combination. But still, that poster has been on my door for two years and will continue to remain there in the future.
It isn't so much that I want to believe in aliens, because I do, and they're definitely real. Arguing that, in a universe which literally has no edge, we're not just the only planet with intelligent life but the only planet with life at all is a gross underestimation of the universe's boundless capacity for creation. More than that, I want to believe that aliens believe in us; I want to believe that we're the little grey men in flying saucers in someone else's universe. I want to believe that, one day, aliens will make definitive contact with us, and that one day we'll deserve it.
The universe is many things. It is bigger and older than we can even conceptualize. It is boundless and incredible and terrifying. If I think about it too much when I'm in the wrong headspace I drive myself into an existential rut, wondering if life is even worth it in the long run. In all likelihood, I will live and die an uneventful and insignificant life. But I want to believe that, no matter what I do or do not accomplish, I've contributed to existence just by staying kind when everything else is cruel, by creating art and continuing to love.
The only thing I can hope for is that I put something meaningful out into the universe.
In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft, carrying with it two probes (named Voyager 1 and 2 respectively) was launched. The spacecraft was carrying some very special cargo. Approximately a year earlier, Carl Sagan was tasked with curating a selection of images and audio files to summarize 200,000 years of human existence.
There are over 100 images included on the record, from the grandiose—the sprawling stones of the Great Wall of China and rose red beams of the Golden Gate Bridge—to the minute—seashells and snowflakes, children sitting in classrooms, and cars idling in traffic.
There are 21 assorted sounds. A mother soothes and kisses her newborn son. Wind and rain echo through the vast expanse of emptiness before them. Carl Sagan's laughter, permanently saved on a record with the Morse Code beeps of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra over and over again. "Through hardships to the stars." The Earth is so large and still so unknown to us, but here we have tried to sum it up. Our people, our flora and fauna, the animals we share this space with. So much of our history has been defined by loyalties in conflict, by unneeded bloodshed and strife.
And if we ever encounter aliens, this is the message we're putting forth to them: This is who we are, and where we are. Look at how we live and create, look at who we love. Despite all the darkness we've gone through we've never stopped creating art. Despite all the fear of the unknown, we've never been tempted to stop exploring, to figure out just how far we can go.
We have done so much. It seems like we've been around for forever when really, all of our existence, all of our triumphs and failures, are so small in comparison to the rest of the universe. And yet, we sent them into space.
There are greetings in 55 different languages on the record, from English to Akkadian, a language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as 2500 BCE. It says, "May all be very well." The Amoy message says, "Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time." The Persian one says "hello to the residents of the far skies". The Punjabi one says, "Welcome home. It is a pleasure to receive you." Welcome home. Isn't that just beautiful, the concept that space is endless both in time and distance, but somewhere out in the cosmos, we've found a soft place to land?
One of the lesser-known features of the record is the hour of brainwaves. The creative director for the project, Ann Druyan, was hooked up to a computer in a New York City hospital, and given simple instructions: Just think. Druyan meditated, unspooling the Earth's history, and various feelings on the long and complicated story of human existence, for nearly an hour before allowing herself a moment of personal reprieve. Toward the end of the record, Druyan thought about Carl Sagan, who was her research partner on the project. Two days prior to Druyan's recording session, she placed a phone call to Sagan which began with an expression of jubilation over discovering an ancient piece of music and ended with the pair declaring their love for each other.
I think about those two days a lot. How there is any number of wonders to be discovered on that golden record, but maybe the most precious is Ann Druyan thinking about the man she would go on to marry. The simplicity of the story astounds me. The tenderness knocks me out. Ann's brainwaves and Carl's laughter, keeping one another company as they explore the far reaches of space. If aliens admire one thing about us, I want it to be our capacity for love.
Someday, any traces of our existence will go up on smoke. The planet will fall victim to the endless trudge of time, or outside forces, and Sagan's beloved pale blue dot will be little more than a blip in the Virgo supercluster. Someday I, and all the people I have ever loved, will be gone, with nothing to remember us by. And maybe the Golden Record will never be listened to by anybody other than Earthlings. Maybe this mission will all be for nothing. But, until I'm proven otherwise, I choose to believe that it wasn't in vain.
In the summer of 1989, Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune. 29 years later, on November of last year, Voyager 2 became the second human-made object to enter interstellar space. NASA keeps a live update of the probes' progress. At the time I am typing this, Voyager 1 is 13,478,433,593 miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 is 11,165,675,156 miles away. They have travelled farther than we have ever dreamed of going.
I want to believe that those records will someday find their audience. I want to believe that before the sun burns out and the Earth freezes in the cold vacuum of space, we will have made contact with extant lifeforms. I want to believe that despite our millennia of war and suffering, we are still capable of love and creation. I want to believe that aliens have been watching us, in all our failures and bad decisions, and still see something worth holding onto. I want to believe in hope. I want to believe in kindness.