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What NASA's Golden Record taught me about humanity

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A cosmic message in a bottle from humanity to extraterrestrials

The Golden Record.
Photo: NASA

As I take the first of three yellow LPs out of the box, my heart is beating fast with excitement. I gently place it on a turntable, hit play, and go lie down on the couch, the lights in my living room dimmed to a minimum. An old man with an Austrian accent starts speaking in a calm voice.

“As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member states who represents almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings of behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our Solar System into the Universe, seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we’re called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of this immense Universe that surrounds us, and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”

I’m listening to a reproduction of NASA’s Golden Record, an album that was printed on gold-plated copper disks and launched into space aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977. I received a copy of it after donating to a Kickstarter campaign about a year ago. The record was part of an ambitious and ingenious project: teach extraterrestrials everything they need to know about humans.

One of the two Voyager probes, with the Golden Record mounted on its side.

The probes are still traveling through space, at 10 miles per second, more than 12 billion miles from our planet. And although no aliens have intercepted the spacecraft or listened to the record yet, the hope is that one day they will. These disks — the sounds, music, and images they contain — could be the only record of life on Earth after we’re all gone.

The voice of the UN secretary general is followed by greetings in 55 languages, including Aramaic, Burmese, Urdu, and several African languages. It sounds like a discombobulated nursery rhyme that makes little sense, but it also speaks to the beauty of diversity on planet Earth. Here we are, one species, but with a brain so big that we made up countless tongues to communicate with each other.

Who were these people who went to Ithaca, New York, to speak for a few seconds into a microphone? Are they still alive? If they passed away, did they die a bit happier, knowing that their voices were etched forever in a record traveling through the stars? Very little is known about them, except that many were from Cornell University and the surrounding communities. They were given no instructions on what to say, so the greetings vary. My favorite is in Amoy, a Chinese dialect. It says: "Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time."

Photo: NASA

Then the sounds of Earth start; this is the most beautiful part of the whole record. It’s a history of our planet through sounds. First, you have nature: thunders, volcanoes, rain, crickets, fire. Then, you have the beginning of civilization: heartbeat, laughter, footsteps, the first tools. Then the advent of technology: morse code (the message says: Ad astra per aspera, “To the stars through hard work”), ships, train, tractor, a Saturn V liftoff. Finally, there’s love: a kiss, a mother and her child.

As I lie on the couch with my eyes closed, each sound transports me somewhere. When I hear the sound of the surf, I imagine being on the beach I used to go to every summer with my family. The rain brings me into a cozy bed, water beads running down the closed window. The train whistling teleports me to my boyfriend’s house, where you can hear trains pass by in the middle of the night. It’s a sound history of our planet, but also a sound history of each of us.

Mounting the Golden Record onto one of the Voyager spacecraft.
Photo: NASA

As the music section of the record — a collection of songs from all over the world — begins, I have tears in my eyes. I expected the Golden Record to give me goosebumps, not to make me cry. There's no reason at all for there to be something rather than nothing here — or someone, or lots of someones, rather than no one. Yet, we launched this record to the far reaches of our galaxy, hoping that some other intelligent life exists.

The record was intended to be a cosmic message in a bottle from humanity to extraterrestrials, promoting peace. As such, its producers — Cornell astrophysicist Carl Sagan and others — decided not to include the deplorable aspects of our species: the wars, the bombs, the genocides. “It would hardly be appropriate that a cultural artifact pay homage to the very forces that cultures discourage and attenuate,” Timothy Ferris, the producer of the Golden Record, writes in the liner notes in the new edition.

Photo: NASA

However, the UN secretary general who opens the Golden Record with his greeting is Kurt Waldheim. He was complicit in several Nazi war crimes, facts that weren’t exposed until later. It's not totally clear how involved Waldheim was with the Nazi crimes against humanity, but despite our attempts to put our best foot forward, we have nonetheless introduced our message of peace with a man who served in units involved with massacres and deportations to death camps.

As sad and ironic that is, it also speaks for humanity more than I want to admit. We are beacons of invention, technology, and science. We are "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry. But we’re also violent, we’re ideologues, and we cause suffering. Accepting this is accepting who we are as a species. Even when we try to leave our dark side out, it seeps in unexpectedly.

That doesn’t take any value away from the Golden Record. It is one attempt at explaining all of life and culture on Earth. In all its imperfection, it is still beautiful. As I lay on my couch with my eyes closed — listening to Bach, then a Navajo Indian night chat — I couldn’t stop marveling at how amazing it is to be part of this planet. I don’t know what aliens would think of us if they ever intercepted the Voyager probes and figured out a way to extrapolate the disk’s contents. Maybe it’ll make no sense to them. To me, the Golden Record is a reminder of how beautiful our planet is and how unique of a home it is. It’s also a reminder that we should take better care of it.