Science & Technology

NASA Once Launched a Golden Record of Earth's Music Into Space

In 1977, NASA launched one of the most ambitious space missions ever — certainly the longest, since it's still going on. Voyager 1 and 2 have traveled farther than any other human-made object, visiting every planet in the solar system along the way. They're both still zooming through space, destined to leave the reaches of the sun's solar wind and travel into deep space — a record-breaking goal that Voyager 1 achieved in 2012 and Voyager 2 is just reaching as of 2017. If they ever make it to another solar system that contains intelligent life, humanity is ready: Both probes carry a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record designed to communicate a story of Earth to any life that might find it.

Greetings From Earth

In 1972, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe, which became the first-ever spacecraft to escape the solar system. Just months before launch, Carl Sagan realized that this was a big opportunity to communicate with any extraterrestrials that might one day find the craft. He joined SETI founder Frank Drake and Sagan's then-wife Linda Salzman Sagan in designing a plaque for the probe depicting various details about its origins, including images of a man and a woman, Earth's place in the galaxy, and a diagram of the hydrogen atom.

Five years later, with messages to E.T. on his mind, Carl Sagan went even further for the Voyager mission. Sagan assembled a committee of experts that included musicologist Alan Lomax to come up with a selection of sounds and images of life on Earth to include on an LP record aboard each spacecraft.

Earth's Greatest Hits

The Golden Record, as it's called, is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing 115 images, various sound clips, and 90 minutes of music from around the globe. Like the Pioneer plaque, the record bears engravings of our place in the galaxy, along with visual instructions on how to play it (like any good vinyl junkies, the committee included a cartridge and stylus). The images are encoded in analog form and include everything from science diagrams to nature scenes to a photo of Jane Goodall with chimpanzees. There are greetings from humans in 55 different languages, and more than two dozen musical selections. Want to hear the playlist we found alien-worthy?

  • Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F. First Movement, Munich Bach Orchestra, Karl Richter, conductor.
  • Java, court gamelan, "Kinds of Flowers," recorded by Robert Brown.
  • Senegal, percussion, recorded by Charles Duvelle.
  • Zaire, Pygmy girls' initiation song, recorded by Colin Turnbull.
  • Australia, Aborigine songs, "Morning Star" and "Devil Bird," recorded by Sandra LeBrun Holmes.
  • Mexico, "El Cascabel," performed by Lorenzo Barcelata and the Mariachi México.
  • "Johnny B. Goode," written and performed by Chuck Berry.
  • New Guinea, men's house song, recorded by Robert MacLennan.
  • Japan, shakuhachi, "Tsuru No Sugomori" ("Crane's Nest,") performed by Goro Yamaguchi.
  • Bach, "Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita No. 3 in E major for Violin, performed by Arthur Grumiaux.
  • Mozart, The Magic Flute, Queen of the Night aria, no. 14. Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor.
  • Georgian S.S.R., chorus, "Tchakrulo," collected by Radio Moscow.
  • Peru, panpipes and drum, collected by Casa de la Cultura, Lima.
  • "Melancholy Blues," performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven.
  • Azerbaijan S.S.R., bagpipes, recorded by Radio Moscow.
  • Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Sacrificial Dance, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky, conductor.
  • Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, piano.
  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor.
  • Bulgaria, "Izlel je Delyo Hagdutin," sung by Valya Balkanska.
  • Navajo Indians, Night Chant, recorded by Willard Rhodes.
  • Holborne, Paueans, Galliards, Almains and Other Short Aeirs, "The Fairie Round," performed by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London.
  • Solomon Islands, panpipes, collected by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service.
  • Peru, wedding song, recorded by John Cohen.
  • China, ch'in, "Flowing Streams," performed by Kuan P'ing-hu.
  • India, raga, "Jaat Kahan Ho," sung by Surshri Kesar Bai Kerkar.
  • "Dark Was the Night," written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson.
  • Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet.

Sagan's Smooth Move

Perhaps the most touching selection of the record can be found in the sound clips. As Carl Sagan describes it in his book "Cosmos," "... we included on the Voyager spacecraft the thoughts and feelings of one person, the electrical activity of her brain, heart, eyes and muscles ... In one sense we have launched into the Cosmos a direct transcription of the thoughts and feelings of a single human being in the month of June in the year 1977 on the planet Earth." That human being was Ann Druyan, the woman who would soon become Carl Sagan's wife. But when those sounds were recorded, she was just beginning to fall in love with him. Now, far out in the recesses of interstellar space, the twin Voyager crafts carry with them an example of life on Earth at its most blissful, vulnerable, and pure — a human in love.

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Here's an amazing gift to give an astronomy fan (or, you know, yourself): a framed replica of the Voyager Golden Record. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 20, 2017

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