The Golden Records: Human Existence in 90 Minutes

In the summer months of 1977, NASA launched 2 space-craft, Voyager 1 and 2 on a planetary Grand Tour. Their mission- to study Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and everything in between. But that was actually not the initial plan. They were only intended to fly to Jupiter and Saturn to examine both planets, their moons and their surroundings. 

It was only after the mission had commenced that they realized a larger mission was, indeed, possible by remotely reprogramming the on-board computers. And thus, a mission extension was issued to include the far-reaches of the solar system. Astronomers had also observed that the planets in our solar system were approaching an optimal layout which would allow the spacecraft to use what is called a “gravitational-assist”- a planetary slingshot that allows space-craft to pick up some orbital speed of the planet they are flying past. 

This sort of alignment takes place roughly once every 175 years- and it proved crucial to the voyager missions. It meant they could cover much larger distances, at much higher speeds without carrying as much fuel- which could then be used to carry more instruments. Lo and behold, the two Voyager spacecraft are now the farthest thing mankind has ever built. Within the first decade of the 21st century, both space-craft had left the solar system traveling millions of miles every single day. 

Even though the stars didn’t align, the planets certainly did. And on their way, they sent home some of the most breath-taking images of our planetary neighbors. These include the famous “pale blue dot” image where the earth is barely a pixel against the stellar glow of our sun. These images were the first of their kind, and to imagine that they were taken using camera technology from the 1970s is truly remarkable. To quote Rich Terrile, part of the imaging science team for the voyager missions, “at the time, the biggest computers in the world were comparable to the kinds of things we have in our pocket today. And I’m not talking about your phone. I’m actually talking about your keyfob.”

Of course, photos weren’t the only gift the voyagers gave us. They were both decked with instruments used to measure cosmic rays, plasma waves, magnetic fields, and other such data. More than 4 decades after launch, the voyager spacecraft talk to us to this very day, shattering the initial mission timeline of only 5 years. 

But such incredible longevity has come at a cost.

The cameras that captured those stunning images have been turned off, and less than half of all the on-board instruments are still functional. The instruments are continuously being reprogrammed and managed to extend their performance as much as possible. But even with all of that, NASA expects radio communication to cease completely by 2025. 

By then, the instruments will fail to produce sufficient heat to keep themselves warm against the numbing extremes of outer space. The machines will be too cold and the signals too weak, and all things that are on board will slowly stop working. 

All but one. 

The Voyager missions were unique in their ambitiousness, and scale, but similar missions had been made in the past. Most notably, 2 space-craft from the Pioneer program, Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively to carry out observations that would pave the way for the voyager missions. Also on both spacecraft were 2 gold-anodized plaques that carried a few graphic drawings meant to be read by a space-faring civilization, were it to be discovered in the distant future. Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and Linda Salzman were responsible for designing the pioneer plaques. And during the final stages of preparation of the Voyager missions, they were approached yet again- this time with the prospect of sending not just drawings, but more elaborate messages that would attempt to tell humanity’s story. 

This was made possible from the use of phonograph records- the most advanced and mission-appropriate encoding method at the time - which would weigh just as much as the Pioneer plaques, but gives the ability to include much more information. As advanced as the phonograph records were, they only had a runtime of 30 minutes or so. Representing humanity was by itself a daunting task, but to do so in only 30 minutes was downright impossible.

As with everything else in the industry of space-exploration, boundaries had to be pushed and solutions had to be engineered. With some adjustments to the revolution rate of the disk, they were able to increase the runtime to 90 minutes. After the hardware was figured out, the team had to decide what they wanted on the record.

For all we know, we don’t share languages with our interstellar brethren, nor do we share life experiences. What we do share though are facts of reality: physics, chemistry, and mathematics. And in fact, that was the guiding principle for the curation of the messages on these plaques initially. But, you have to wonder, if this is indeed a craft that might make it to another star, or a planet or an extraterrestrial, however slim that chance might be, is this all we want to say to them? Is this all they need to know about us? That we understand math? The team at NASA certainly didn’t think so. And thus began the curation of music, language, and photos for humanity’s very own mixtape. The objective? To capture the human condition. 

At every step of this mammoth task, the team tried to make sure that the contents of the record were as representative of Earth’s population as possible, which is easier said than done. You see, back in the 1970s, music outside your own demographic was barely accessible. You either had cassettes or you listened to the song on the radio. That’s it. There was no Spotify, no internet. And when you liked what you heard, you had to go out and get the physical copy. And that is what the team did for the Golden Record. The musical curation was also especially important for its ability to communicate feelings

There is much more to human beings than perceiving and thinking. We are feeling creatures. However, our emotional life is more difficult to communicate, particularly to beings of very different biology. 

Music, it seems, was at least a creditable attempt to convey human emotions.

On the record is music from Bach and Beethoven, chosen specifically to highlight the mathematical properties of music- a potentially universal phenomenon. They featured artists from ancient China, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Congo, Peru, and many more places as a desperate attempt to do justice to the diversity of the world's music. 

But human emotion is volatile and unpredictable. Amidst the chaos of organizing all this music- the abundance of choice, the copyright issues, and the inaccessibility of it all - Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan grew close to each other. On June 1st, 1977, in the final days of the curation process, Ann and Carl shared a phone call about a Chinese Music piece Ann had just found. By the end of the call, Ann and Carl had expressed their feelings for each other and even ended up proposing. The process of curating profound pieces of art had seemingly brought up a spontaneous love in both of them- a “eureka!” moment if you will. In the years after the voyager missions, the 2 got married, and spent the rest of their lives together till Carl’s death in 1996.

Meanwhile, Ann had also thought of a different way to communicate with extraterrestrials. She wondered if a sufficiently advanced civilization could decode our thoughts by taking a look at our brain waves recorded on an EEG machine. The idea was pitched to Sagan who then proceeded to choose Druyan herself as the person whose brain waves would be recorded. The recording took place on June 3rd, 1977 just days after Ann and Carl had proposed to each other. While most of her “mental itinerary” consisted of global events, she couldn’t help but think about her newfound love for Carl. "My feelings as a 27-year-old woman, madly fallen in love, they're on that record,” she says. 

Also on the record is an audio essay that starts with sounds from volcanoes, thunder and other such natural phenomena and ends with more modern creations such as the liftoff of the Saturn V. It’s intended to chronologically tell the story of our civilization purely by sound. The record also features greetings from 55 different languages, including the now famous line from Carl Sagan’s own son Nick. You may have heard it before.

The records also carried 115 images encoded in analog form. Some of the images are technical in nature, describing constants and demonstrating the scale of things. But a lot of them are seemingly arbitrary images. What they could mean is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s why they’re important? You see, a critical aspect of the human experience is our ability for abstraction - to feel something in a piece of art, or a photo and to find meaning where there is apparently none to be found. This picture, for example, of a girl in a supermarket is a very ordinary picture at first glance. She is shown eating some fruits she picked up while she’s still in the shopping aisles, presumably without having paid for them yet - something you’re not supposed to do. The photo ends up capturing the subtle mischief, and the joy, that comes with doing something like that. At least, for me it does. Meanwhile, these photos capture the intrigue of someone looking at an X-Ray of their hand, the determination to make it to the finish line, and the focus of a teacher and his disciple. These photos convey all of these things, or they convey none of them. It really is for the viewer to decide- but that’s what it really is about - to provide an avenue for exploration into the human psyche.

The multifaceted contents of the records certainly capture some of the beautiful aspects of our life on this planet - the sound of a mother’s kiss, expressions of love, breathtaking symphonies - you name it. But, intentionally or not, the records also capture some of the not-so-beautiful aspects- ones that are nonetheless human. For example, Sagan recalls that in trying to get permission to include the greetings from the UN delegates, he came to the disappointing realization that almost all of them were men. The production team also has numerous accounts of licensing issues when trying to collect the music. You would expect an opportunity to send your song and immortalize it in the process would be the ultimate form of advertisement for any label- a no brainer. 

But it was far from that. 

NASA, meanwhile, refused to include images of explosions - even though they are part of the lives of a lot of people in wartorn countries - in the fear that it may be perceived as hostile and offensive. Carl and his team then offered to include the photo of a nude couple that they hoped was non-offensive and showed a critical aspect of human lives: reproduction. NASA famously turned that down in fears of a negative public reaction, and instead went with a silhouette version of the image. 

If the messages are indeed for aliens, what standard of shame was this image violating? What public reaction? Ann and Carl’s love story is certainly a captivating one. But less known is the fact that Ann was engaged to Tim Ferriss at the time, and Carl was married to Linda Salzman. In the midst of all this, some had found love, and some had lost it. There is nothing on the record that directly points to these events, but the fact that these things - so earthly in their disposition - were nonetheless part of the larger process makes the Golden Records that much more genuine. 

These stories are destined to live on for millennia just like the records themselves; the gold-plated copper disk will be protected by an electroplated aluminum cover that is supposed to last at least for the next billion years. It’s a practically infinite shelf-life - by then the sun will have expanded to the point that its heat no longer nourishes life on earth, but rather destroys it. The pale blue dot will have been reduced to a “charred cinder.” But then again, a billion years is, after all, just a billion years. The Golden records, too, will perish- just like it’s very own makers.

I like the Golden record because it highlights the scope for sentimental value in otherwise technical pursuits. The unfathomable immensity of space means the voyager space-craft is not likely to be met with another planet in 10^20 years.

Of course, it might be detected before that by a technologically capable entity, but even that has infinitesimal odds. What, then, is the true purpose of the Golden Records? Looking back at the project, B M. Oliver, recognized as a pioneer in our search for extraterrestrial life, said, “ There is only an infinitesimal chance that the plaque will ever be seen by a single extraterrestrial, but it will certainly be seen by billions of terrestrials. Its real function, therefore, is to appeal to and expand the human spirit, and to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence a welcome expectation of mankind.”

I constantly find myself looking at the pictures on the record and those that voyager took and wonder what could’ve been if they were to be made today. We could have higher definition cameras and significantly more storage. We could’ve sent so much more! But then, I feel, our limitations were for the best. Perhaps, it’s good that we were restricted by those 90 minutes, by those 115 images. The inability to say everything we wanted to means we had to be intentional with every pixel, every syllable. It forced us to say some things out loud and leave others unsaid - in our own, human way. 

“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.” - President Jimmy Carter

- MA, MM