On this day in 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 on a grand tour of the solar system and into the mysteries of interstellar space. (It followed the launch of Voyager 2 a few weeks earlier.)
Attached to each of these probes is a beautiful golden record containing a message for any extraterrestrial intelligence that might encounter it. This enchanting artifact, officially called the Voyager Interstellar Record, may be the last vestige of our civilization after we are gone forever.
Curated by a committee led by Carl Sagan, the Golden Record tells a story of our planet expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth's greatest music from myriad peoples and eras, from Bach and Beethoven to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry, Benin percussion to Solomon Island panpipes. Natural sounds—birds, a train, a baby's cry, a kiss—are collaged into a lovely audio poem called "Sounds of Earth." There are spoken greetings in dozens of human languages—and one whale language—and more than 100 images encoded in analog that depict who, and what, we are.
Two years ago, my friends Timothy Daly, Lawrence Azerrad, and I released the Voyager Record to the public on vinyl for the first time as a lavish box set. Our project's resonance with the public, and the Grammy that we were honored to receive for it, are really a testament to the majesty of the original record and the entire Voyager mission. As the original Golden Record's producer, Timothy Ferris, wrote in the liner notes for our box set, the Voyagers are on a journey not just through space but also through time. The record is a time capsule but it is also timeless. It sparks the imagination. It provokes us to think about the future and our civilization's place in it. It exudes a sense of hope for a better tomorrow.
As of this writing, Voyager 1 is more than 21 billion kilometers away from Earth. Speeding along at 17 kilometers per second, it will take another 40,000 years before the spacecraft passes within 1.6 light-years of a star in the constellation Camelopardalis. Yet it still phones home every day, transmitting new scientific data about cosmic rays, magnetic fields, and the solar wind.
In a decade or so, Voyager 1 will run out of power and go silent. But it will still continue its journey, drifting among the stars in orbit within our Milky Way essentially forever or until it's intercepted, an unlikely but certainly possible event.
We may never know whether an extraterrestrial civilization ever listens to the Golden Record. It was a gift from humanity to the cosmos. But it is also a gift to humanity. The record embodies a sense of possibility. The Golden Record, and the Voyagers carrying the disks, are a reminder of what we can achieve when we are at our best — and that our future really is up to all of us.
The Voyager Golden Record 3xLP Vinyl Box Set and 2xCD-Book edition is now available from Ozma Records.