On September 5, 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 space probe out of our atmosphere and into the cosmos.
Fast forward 44 years to 2021. This is when I read Jared Michael Delaney’s sci-fi play Voyager One for the very first time, and I’ll admit, I had absolutely no idea what the Voyager 1 space probe even was. Or I should say, what it is.
Because yes, Voyager 1 is both very real and it’s still out there, journeying through interstellar space and collecting data on its path. And on Voyager 1, rests the Golden Record, shining in its case, ready to be deciphered by extraterrestrial life.
Add this to the list of things I wish I’d learned about in school!
Having now taken a dive into the real story behind the play, I’m absolutely fascinated by this piece of human history and, of course, regularly overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe and my little place in it. But existential crisis aside, let’s talk more about Voyager 1 and the Golden Record.
Voyager 1 was designed specifically to conduct research on planets within our solar system and beyond, into interstellar space, regularly communicating findings back to Earth so that we as a species could learn more about what’s out there. But NASA saw the potential in this mission for something even more special, and perhaps a little more unconventional.
Thus emerged the Golden Record. And yes, it is a literal record plated in gold. It contains music, “Sounds of Earth”, greetings in 55 different languages, and a series of images all designed to depict human life on Earth to any alien being who might come across it. The cover of the record is etched with pictures in an attempt to convey how a record should be played, and it was even sent with a cartridge and a needle. They really were trying to make extraterrestrial communication a little easier!
It is, in essence, a veritable time capsule of humanity, capturing the hopes, the desires, the realities, and even the priorities of the United States in 1977. And now, it is the farthest man-made object from our very own planet… a little piece of the 1970s floating through interstellar space.
What’s more, the people behind the Golden Record certainly left their mark on its contents. For instance, famous scientist Carl Sagan was put in charge of the NASA committee that set out to determine what would actually make it onto the record. You can now hear his laughter, captured in etchings and floating through space, as one of the “Sounds of Earth”. And his son, who was six years old at the time, recorded one of the English greetings, telling alien listeners, “Hello from the children of planet Earth”.
Even romantic love made it onto the Golden Record. Ann Druyan, Creative Director of the project, had the brilliant idea of recording her own brain waves to be included on Voyager 1. She thought about many topics, including Earth’s history, civilizations and the problems they face, and what it was like to fall in love. And the beautiful thing? She was actually falling in love with Carl Sagan at the time. They married not long after and remained happily together for the rest of Sagan’s life. What could be more human than falling in love and wanting to tell the entire universe all about it?
Listening to the contents of the record on the internet using my modern-day laptop, I’m left with a feeling of curiosity and optimism, and that’s what I find so fascinating about this whole thing. There’s something so beautifully hopeful about the Golden Record.
Over a year was spent determining what would go on this metal disc, what would perfectly encapsulate this intended image of humanity, and yet there was never a guarantee that the Golden Record would ever be found. We don’t know if there is life outside of our planet, and even if we did, there is no way of knowing that they would find Voyager 1, that they would be able to play the record, or that they would even understand what they had found.
Yet, against all odds, NASA decided to move forward with this project anyway, because that unbelievably slim chance still made it all worth it.
If we were to make a version of the Golden Record today, I’m sure it would look pretty different. It likely wouldn’t be a record at all. After all, technology has changed quite a bit and continues to do so at a rapid pace. And I imagine there would still be a lot of debate about whether or not Johnny B. Goode should be the rock and roll song of choice.
But I like to believe that our hope remains the same. We may not know what the future holds, but we can look at where we are now and think about where we’re going. We can work on doing better with every moment that we exist on this planet and in this universe, and we can hope that what we put out into the vastness of space is something positive, and something that reflects who we are.
You can stream Voyager One by Jared Michael Delaney On Demand now through December 12. For more information, visit ptalaska.org.