If you watch Parks and Recreation, you’ll know the “Time Capsule” episode where the ever-sprightly Leslie Knope tries to foster Pawnee pride by creating a time capsule to be buried and unearthed in MMCVXII.
What was life like for the people of Pawnee? In her words, the time capsule would “encapsulate what’s happening in Pawnee at this time.” Cute, right?
Now replace “buried in the ground” with “shot into outer space”, replace “unearthed by the people of Pawnee” with “to be discovered by aliens”, and replace “time capsule” with “gold plated phonograph that includes, among other things, a sampling of the greatest sonic achievements of the human race.” Cute, right?
In 1977, NASA created the Voyager Golden Record. Mounted on the sides of Voyager I and II (launched in 1977) was a phonograph that could play sounds, music and images for any extraterrestrial that might intercept it. The phonograph, NASA had hoped, would provide a snapshot of life on Earth and introduce our civilisation to whatever it was that might lie beyond.
In this regard, NASA was rather literal. The phonograph included 55 greetings in, for instance, Welsh, Burmese, and Akkadian, a semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia almost 2000 years ago. Not limited to greetings, the phonograph also contained the sounds of nature; among them the sounds of thunder, surf, and crickets; sounds of industry, of the first tools, of tractors and of a spacecraft launching; and the sounds of life; a kiss, a heartbeat, a laugh, and a mother and child.
Carl Sagan and his committee also curated the music for the phonograph. They included classics by composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart and music from a variety of world cultures. Among them was “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird”, a recording of music played by Indigenous Australians.
In a move that defies my comprehension of technology, NASA also encoded images onto the phonograph. Among the visuals hurtled into space were images of the planets, a very basic diagram of vertebrate evolution, a photograph of Valeriy Borzov of the U.S.S.R. leading a sprint at the London Olympics, a highway in Ithaca, New York, and a visual demonstration of licking, eating, and drinking. You can explore the curated scenes here.
Pretty impressively, Australia was amongst the images intended for our alien friends. Herron Island on the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House featured in serious intergalactic humble-brag.
According to NASA, a definitive work – now out of print – was published to document the making of the Voyager Golden Record. Murmers of Earth – the title of the volume – was reissued in 1992 with a CD-ROM.
Since I’m more likely to come across the original Voyager Golden Record (now outside our Solar System) than I am a CD-ROM, I was happy to hear the project of releasing the music and visuals is being funded by a Kickstarter campaign that started two weeks ago. After just two days, David Pescovitz and his collaborators Timothy Daly and Lawrence Azerrad had already doubled their pledge target!
Now you, at home, can treat yourself to the best of humanity intended for aliens.