The Voyager 1 probe made history last month when scientists agreed that it had finally, officially ventured beyond our solar system and entered interstellar space. Even if Voyager’s distance traveled is not even a gnat’s eyelash when considered against the unfathomable scale of our universe, it was still an exciting landmark, one that reminds us that our species is capable of great accomplishments when we’re not so facedown in the mud that we lose sight of the stars.
You’ve all probably heard of the so-called “Golden Records” that were included on the Voyager craft. They contain tons of images, sounds, and information about our species and our world, designed to serve as a sort of time capsule of who and what we were at the time we sent Voyager 1 and 2 off into the void. They also contained copies of a letter from then-President Jimmy Carter, a greeting to any extraterrestrial explorers who might someday cross paths with Voyager. (Admittedly, a very unlikely scenario given the sheer size of our galaxy, and the comparative tininess of Voyager. But you never know.) While the aliens obviously wouldn’t speak English, the many different languages included on the Records would theoretically serve as a sort of Rosetta Stone to help them interpret our messages.
President Carter penned the letter in the summer of 1977 before the Voyager craft began their journeys beyond our homeworld. I have to admire Carter’s optimism; when talking about how the Voyager craft — and the letter, by extension — was likely to survive billions of years, he imagines that humanity will likely be “profoundly altered” by that time. With the cynicism of our modern age, I imagine many of us would have assumed our species to be long since extinct by that point. His outlook is kind of refreshing.
If you’ve never read Carter’s letter, it includes one paragraph that was specifically intended as “our message” to any who should find it.
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 someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.
How awesome is that? As divisive and combative as the various factions of our world are, it’s amazing to take a moment of hope to imagine the possibility that we will evolve, that we will become a truly global society and set our eyes and ambitions on the challenge of space. It’s easy to dismiss that sort of optimism these days, but nothing good ever came of dreaming small or giving up.
A NASA committee headed by the late Carl Sagan decided on what information should be put on the so-called “Golden Records.” They include greetings in 55 different languages, various “sounds of Earth,” a 90-minute selection of music from all around the globe, many different images, and even recordings of brainwaves. Sadly, Sagan’s pick of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was vetoed by EMI at the time. Turning your nose up at possible interstellar publicity? Poor form.
You can read Carter’s full Voyager letter below.