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(Credit: NASA)

Music

Discovering the cosmic wonder of the 'Voyager Golden Record'

@Russellisation

“To the makers of music – all worlds, all times”.

Back in 1977, less than ten years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, NASA launched an entirely different capsule into the stratosphere, one that contained not astronauts exploring the outer reaches of our planet, but music, hoping to be discovered by distant lifeforms in faraway lands. 

Truly the bizarre writings of science fiction, the probe named Voyager 1 has since become the farthest human-made object from Earth, carrying a phonograph record that includes sounds, images and music carefully selected to reflect the diversity of life and culture of our planet. Sent as a time capsule intended to be found by any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, the record is inscribed with the message “To the makers of music – all worlds, all times” hand-etched onto its surface. 

Taking almost a year to curate the content of the record, the material was selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, with Sagan and his team assembling 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, including animal noises and greetings in over 55 ancient and modern languages to represent humanity. In addition, the record also includes a printed message from US President Jimmy Carter, reading: “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”. 

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As well as the various images and earthly sounds, the disc also includes music travelling through the cosmos 14.5 billion miles away, with the majority of the tracks being traditional world music from across the globe. In addition, the disc includes the works of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky as well as the electronic composer Laurie Spiegel and the Azerbaijani folk music of oboe player Kamil Jalilov. In fact, the only piece of popular music to make the track was Chuck Berry’s 1958 classic ‘Johnny B. Goode’, which will remain the only piece of rock music to occupy the cosmos, until another potential Voyager probe is sent up to join its parent. 

The voice of Chuck Berry was almost joined by that of John, Paul, George and Ringo, with the Beatles’ song ‘Here Comes the Sun’ selected for the record, only for the record company to withhold the copyright. Despite pushback from the band themselves, the company stood their ground, with the creative director of the ‘Golden Record’, Ann Druyan, stating her dismay in 2015, “that was one of those cases of having to see the tragedy of our planet. Here’s a chance to send a piece of music into the distant future and distant time, and to give it this kind of immortality, and they’re worried about money”. 

Having sent back continuous data since 1977, it is expected that the Voyager 1 will run out of sufficient power to operate any of its instruments beyond 2025, meaning in just three years the capsule will float aimlessly in the cosmos as a mere piece of weightless heaven-metal. 

There is something ethereal, mystical and oddly comforting to know that long after we have each departed from this planet, there will forever be ‘Johnny B. Goode’ floating in the darkness of the universe waiting to be found by a lucky extraterrestrial. As the late Carl Sagan said back in 1977, “the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet”.