May 28, 2024

Stempo objects embody all kinds of contradictions. They are closely linked to us as our proxies in space, and the people who make or launch them often imprint or project their own emotions and beliefs onto these objects. Yet they no longer remain fully obedient to us, scientifically or symbolically, the further they get.

Over the past few years I have read everything I can find about certain objects that have launched humans into outer space. My project was a bit crazy: to write fictional stories from the point of view of space objects themselves, whether Starman in his midnight cherry Roadster, or the International Space Station.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted one of the twin Voyager spacecraft to tell a story. Their brilliance is not only derived from the fact that they are the most distant man-made objects from Earth. It has more to do with the burden they each carry – the Golden Record – and the intriguing background of the small group of people who decided what should be included in this message to aliens.

The Voyager mission, launched in 1977, was intended to last just four years, with the two spacecraft (V1 and V2) flying past Jupiter and Saturn. But they survived and explored the outer gas giants in our solar system, and still they kept going. They are now in interstellar space – a liminal zone where they are subject to the forces of not only our Sun, but other stars. Soon the last of their scientific instruments will be shut down, and they will no longer be able to communicate with us. At that point they will be 22 billion kilometers away.

Still, their mission won’t end once they can’t send back any more data. This is where their true purpose begins: to transport the Golden Record to intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The Golden Record was essentially a time capsule put together over a few months by astronomer Carl Sagan and a small team that included his then-wife Linda Salzman Sagan, music journalist Tim Ferris, and a young writer named Annie Druyan did, who was Tim’s fiancee. The two Gold Records are made of copper and covered with gold. About 900 images, samples of music and human greetings in different languages ​​for strangers are stored on them. My favorite is this one, which looks friendly but contains a subtle warning: “Hello everyone. We’re happy here and you’re happy there.”

As soon as I read about the circumstances under which the Golden Record was created in Keay Davidson’s biography Carl Sagan: A Life, I was intrigued by the story.

Carl hoped that one day another intelligent life form would encounter the Voyagers, play the Record, and find humans as delightful creatures worth a visit the next time they passed by Earth. In space circles, the Golden Record is spoken of in adoring tones, as a visionary message in a bottle thrown into the unknown, a profound gesture of hope in the face of the human condition of seemingly alone in the cosmos.

But I’m not so sure. Can you think you believe you have the right to engineer a message from humans to aliens, to create a time capsule to represent humanity for all time? Some might say that it is still better to send an imperfect message to the future than none at all. But what we choose to commemorate is as political and flawed as what we choose to forget.

Carl’s passion for sending messages to the future was ignited as a boy when his parents took him to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. He saw one of the first times in the world how capsules were buried under Flushing Meadows. Inside this shiny tube were dolls and dollars, cigarettes, hats, seeds, alphabet blocks, all sorts of things – buried for people to open in the year 6,900.

As Carl and his band began work on the Gold Record in 1977, there were long debates about whether they should only represent the positive sides of humanity. If they included images and sounds that acknowledged the existence of war, murder, poverty and genocide, wasn’t there a risk that the aliens would think the humans were threatening them? Or that people were not worth interacting with, given the depths to which they had sunk in their treatment of each other, and the often bitter misery of life on earth?

Annie Druyan, whom Carl had asked to be the creative director of the Voyager interstellar message project, was adamant that they had a moral responsibility to include reference on the Golden Record to the more disturbing aspects of our species. She listened to what was believed to be the very first audio ever recorded of human warfare; of a British soldier near the end of the First World War ordering mustard gas shells to be fired at the German trenches, somewhere in France, and then the surge of the discharge. Should it be included?, she must have wondered. It wasn’t.

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I have not met or spoken to Annie, who is now in her 70s (Carl died in 1996), but I feel strongly drawn to her belief that it would be a mistake to include only happy sounds and images. “If we tried to be something other than what we are, it wouldn’t be very effective… it would be hollow,” she told interviewers in 2023. Any alien civilization worth interacting with would judge humans harshly, not for what they did wrong, but for being unable to own it – for lying about who we really were.

Ultimately, the sounds on the Golden Record are uniformly neutral, unthreatening. Earthquakes, storms, frogs, wolves. The beating of a human heart, footfalls, fire. Tools, cars, planes, a rocket launch. The sound of a kiss – Annie’s fiancé, Tim, pecks her on the cheek – a woman whispering to her baby, the radio transmissions of a pulsar.

Only the Astronauts by Ceridwen Dovey. Photo: Penguin

But after the kiss comes something incomprehensible to most people, let alone strangers. This is the sound of Annie’s thoughts, recorded while she was connected to an electroencephalogram machine.

In a medical center in New York, she meditated for an hour while connected to the machine. For much of that time, she thought about what it felt like to live through the cold war, and the terror of a nuclear arms race, and the horrors of poverty and starvation in so many parts of the world. Right at the end of the hour she thought of Carl and “the miracle of love”, about how – two days before – they had agreed that they wanted to be together and marry when the time was right.

This hour of sounds was compressed into one minute of audio, and added to Annie’s audio essay. So really, Annie finally managed to include something much more complicated about people on the Record. The sound of her thoughts in that electroencephalogram is a living archive, not only of her immense joy at being in love, but of fear, sadness and horror of what people can do to each other on this planet. A half-hidden message to strangers about the extremes of emotion, perhaps truer to what it is to be human than anything else etched in the grooves of the Gold Record.

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