Everything we know about the behaviour of magnetic fields, cosmic rays and the solar wind of interstellar space is down to the Voyager 1 and 2 missions.
Launched in 1977, the two NASA spacecraft are now more than 21 billion kilometres away. So far away that their radio signals take more than 15 hours to reach Earth. They will continue with their lonely missions until their plutonium-238 thermoelectric power generators fail, expected to be sometime around 2030. Once that happens, they will drift aimlessly among the stars of our galaxy – possibly for billions of years.
What’s out there? No one knows. But scientists were intrigued enough about who – or what – might find the Voyagers that they loaded each spacecraft with a golden record carrying data about the human species and life on Earth. In case other species encountered the record they have instructions on its gold-plated aluminium jacket on how to play it. And once the needle dropped, they would possess a most intriguing document about our existence with its 31 tracks of speech, assorted sounds and music from Earth. Making it one unique compilation.
The long-player is introduced by Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, who says with utmost gravity: “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. It is with humility and hope that we take this step.”
Forty years later, the contents of the golden Voyager records are now available to enjoy without leaving the comfort of your own personal space. And while it sounds like the by-product of a different technological era, there is a surprising amount still to enjoy from the 3LPs or 2CDs and the weighty hardback book that accompanies it thanks to the folks at Ozma Records.
Sure, there are the predictable inclusions of Bach and Beethoven. While younger bluesmen Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson and jazz legend Louis Armstrong also make the cut. But it’s the wide array of music from around the globe that is still as beguiling today as it was in 1977. The gamelan music and singing of the Pura Paku Alaman Palace Orchestra from Java is both as powerful and bewitching, as the Mahi musicians of Benin are propulsive. There’s otherworldly singing from an African tribe of pygmies, an intoxicating mariachi tune from Mexico, whale songs, ethereal Japanese wooden flute playing and a Navajo night chant.
The golden record idea came from a conversation between astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. They persuaded NASA to attach plaques to the outside of the earlier Pioneer spacecraft missions featuring line drawings of a man and woman, accompanied by a pulsar map indicating our location in the galaxy. And once NASA agreed to the more ambitious golden record idea for the Voyager missions they sought out John Lennon – before tax problems saw him leave the project and America.
Nevertheless, Lennon was able to recommend engineer Jimmy Iovine (future founder of Interscope Records and co-founder with Dr Dre of Beats headphones) and a team including novelist Ann Druyan, science journalist Timothy Ferris, and artists Jon Lomberg and Linda Salzman Sagan set off to comb the earth’s recordings to find the ideal 31 tracks.
Ferris recalls: “In those days, before email and the internet, we had to obtain physical copies of every recording we listened to. Ann found the LP containing the raga ‘Jaat Kahan Ho’ in a carton under a card table in the back of an appliance store. The folklorist Alan Lomax pulled a Russian recording, said to be the sole copy of ‘Chakrula’ in North America, from a stack of lacquer demos and sailed it across the room to me like a Frisbee. It was exhausting, involving, utterly delightful work.”
The contents of the Voyager records were never supposed to exist only in deep space. The team intended for it to be released commercially – but ran into rather more earthly problems with warring record labels refusing to allow their recordings on another label. “As a result, nobody heard the whole thing properly from the night in 1977 when I walked out of the studio with the record under my arm,” says Ferris.
Looking at the pictures of the Voyager craft – which look like little more than huge space-worthy satellite dishes – and the incredible images they have beamed back of the planets in our galaxy in the accompanying book it’s enough to remind us all about our tiny and fleeting role in the much larger evolution of our universe. Each of these songs are poignantly fleeting and ephemeral in telling the story about us. Yet they still have so much to say about the bizarre inhabitants of planet Earth.