A NASA-created phonograph album — the “Voyager Golden Record” — is floating in space in search of a listener. It’s a mix tape “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials,” according to NASA’s website.
Of course, the extraterrestrials have to stumble upon it and figure out how to make it play.
NASA launched two copies of the album — which contains spoken greetings in 55 languages, music by Bach and Chuck Berry, and even songs by humpback whales — into space in 1977 on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts. It did not include a record player.
Until recently, the album hasn’t been made public except to donors of a Kickstarter campaign by Ozma Records, which raised nearly $1.4 million to issue a limited number of copies on vinyl.
That campaign was so successful that the company decided to release the album to the general public, Ozma Records co-founder David Pescovitz, who co-produced the record, told The Washington Post. At the end of January 2018, the company will begin shipping a box set vinyl edition through the record distributor Light in the Attic.
For NASA, compiling a snapshot of the planet’s history on a single record was no easy task — especially given its purpose, which President Jimmy Carter outlined in a statement included on the album: a message from planet Earth.
“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,” Carter’s statement said. “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.”
NASA approved the record about six months before the launch of the two Voyager spacecrafts, according to science writer Timothy Ferris, who worked with the team, which was led by astrophysicist Carl Sagan and also included radio astronomer Frank Drake and author Ann Druyan as the project’s creative director.
“The chances of aliens finding the Voyagers in the vast emptiness of space are small — some say infinitesimal — but we took our jobs seriously,” Druyan said in a NASA article. “From the moment when [Sagan] first broached the project to Tim Ferris and me, it felt mythic.”
Some technical specifics were quickly worked out.
They couldn’t use an 8-track tape, a popular format at the time, because space radiation would degrade the magnetic tape, according to NASA. Instead, they made a record from copper and coated it with gold, which would protect it from the extreme temperatures and radiation encountered in space.
And they used records that spun at 16 2/3 revolutions per minute rather than the conventional 33 1/3 RPMs. That meant lower sound quality, but it allowed them 90 minutes of music rather than 27, as the Atlantic noted.
The real question was what to put on it.
“I remember sitting around the kitchen table making these huge decisions about what to put on and what to leave off,” Druyan said. “We couldn’t help but appreciate the enormous responsibility to create a cultural Noah’s Ark with a shelf life of hundreds of millions of years.”
They chose each track for a different purpose.
Some are obvious. The 12-minute audio essay fittingly titled “The Sounds of Earth” filled with sounds of everything from waves, laughter, an earthquake, crickets, chimpanzees, thunder, rain, footsteps, a baby’s cry and the wet smack of a kiss — to name a few — offered a short glimpse into the natural sounds we encounter here on Earth.
Others were more practical. The records included three compositions by J.S. Bach and two by Ludwig van Beethoven. The composers were given so much space in case the potential extraterrestrial life-forms were unable to hear the music, but could feel its vibration, Ferris noted in the New Yorker.
To understand why we did this, imagine that the records were being studied by extraterrestrials who lacked what we would call hearing, or whose hearing operated in a different frequency range than ours, or who hadn’t any musical tradition at all. Even they could learn from the music by applying mathematics, which really does seem to be the universal language that music is sometimes said to be. They’d look for symmetries—repetitions, inversions, mirror images, and other self-similarities—within or between compositions.
Others were chosen as metaphors.
Take Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” for example. The song, representing rock-and-roll, “was the music of motion, of moving, getting to someplace you’ve never been before and the odds are against you, but you want to go,” Druyan told Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes.”
“That was Voyager,” Druyan said.
And Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” was a symbolic choice, Druyan told Pitchfork. The blues song aches with Johnson’s pain as he moans through indecipherable lyrics, which drew her to the song.
Johnson “died of exposure because he was that poor and uncared for; it was just him and his wife and his ruthless church, this broken-down church,” Druyan said. “There are no words so it’s transcended immediately in any of the limitation of the differences of human languages. It was pure, universal feeling, and it was a planet-wide feeling.”
The record also included folk music from around the world, featuring instrumentation like panpipes from the Solomon Islands or percussion from Senegal.
Scientists also electronically encoded 115 various images on the record, such as photographs of a mother nursing her child, an astronaut floating in space, a violin with sheet music and an illustration showing a male and a pregnant female, according to NASA.
Finally, they printed directions of how to play the record and a dedication on its cover: “To the makers of music—all worlds, all times.”
Then, they blasted it off into space and the unknown. Voyager 1 exited the solar system — the first probe to do so — in 2012, according to NASA. Voyager 2 is still in the solar system.
Despite the passage of time, the Voyager records should still be in perfect condition, according to NASA. But, of course, it’s impossible to know if it will ever be heard by any extraterrestrial life.
“I’d say it’s as fresh and new as the day it was placed aboard the spacecraft,” David Doody, an engineer on the Voyager mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Atlantic. “It’s been stored in a vacuum more perfect than any attainable on Earth, and protected from dust and cosmic rays by an aluminum metal case.”
Doody guessed the records “would be in playable condition for many hundreds of millennia.”
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