If aliens exist then one day they might come across a package of golden disks sent to them from Earth, and wonder to themselves, “What’s on the Voyager golden disks?” Of course, there’s a number of people back here on Earth who don’t know what the disks in question contain. Back in 1977, legendary cosmologist Carl Sagan was behind an initiative to attach a pair of golden phonograph records to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which would soon be launched into space on an unending journey. Although the craft wasn’t aimed at any particular star, the Voyagers were intended to continue traveling in a straight line away from Earth for tens of thousands of years, which gave them the best chance yet of any manmade objects to actually encounter sentient aliens. Sagan wanted to make sure that humanity was well-represented if such an encounter were to occur.
The Golden Records were intended to explain to our extraterrestrial friends what human beings are all about, and to connect with them through the shared language of science. However, for obvious reasons, Sagan and other NASA officials had no desire to let aliens in on humanity’s many struggles, like nuclear weaponry, pollution, and prejudice. Instead, the Records served as a “Greatest Hits” album of homo sapiens’ top accomplishments.
The Voyager mission wasn’t the first time that NASA had shot information into space. Previously, on the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, plaques with basic information about humanity were included, but plaques can only contain so much information. By 1977, NASA was ready to send a more complex message to their possible extraterrestrial neighbors, and it was time for the Voyager Interstellar Message Project.
The golden phonograph records attached to the Voyager probes were far more advanced than the usual LP. The records contained not just the sounds of Earth, but also 115 images that would have to be reconstructed line-by-line based on a signal imprinted on the record. This complicated process necessitated an equally complicated set of instructions, written in as universal a language as possible and featuring plenty of clear diagrams. The records each carried a stylus with them to aid in playback, as well as a color image of the sun’s spectrum for calibration.
While the Golden Records were intended to teach sentient extraterrestrials about life on Earth, they would also theoretically serve as the First Contact between humanity and an alien race. Therefore, some serious greeting was in order, and the Golden Records did not disappoint. Each record contains greeting in 59 languages, including Ancient Greek, Esperanto, and Sumerian. Not all of the languages are human ones, however - a “hello” in whale song was included, as well. After all, aliens are just as likely to understand that as they are any human language.
Aside from the instructions manual, one additional bit of print material was included as part of the Voyager package. An official statement from President Jimmy Carter was included, in which he wrote,
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. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.
Of course, the likelihood of alien races being able to read English is pretty low, so this was mostly a symbolic gesture.
Although NASA is an American organization, the Voyager Golden Records were meant to be a message from all of humanity, and so a written statement from UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was included as well. In addition to his written greeting, Waldheim also recorded a spoken version of it in English, and this was the first of the dozens of greetings heard on the records. No less poetic than President Carter, Waldheim said:
We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are 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 the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.