Post Solar Eclipse, NASA Celebrates 40 Years Since 'The Golden Record'

Forty years ago, the space probe Voyager 2 took off to study the outer reaches of the solar system with a very significant piece of US culture inside. The Golden Record, a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph recording, was created by a committee chaired by famed astronomer Carl Sagan, as a way of communicating to extraterrestrials about what life on Earth is like.

Recordings on it included greetings in several languages, natural sounds, a message from President Carter and selections from Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, as well as the Chuck Berry classic “Johnny B. Goode.” In 2017, as the Voyager 2 and its companion Voyager 1 continue to explore space, interest in the Golden Record is greater than ever. A PBS documentary The Farthest – Voyager in Space airing on August 23 explores its creation, while the record itself is now available to purchase as a vinyl box set after a Kickstarter campaign brought in almost $1.4 million.

Nick Sagan, the son of Carl, was seven at the time of the recording and was asked to provide a greeting. “They came to me and said, ‘hey, Nick, do you have a message you wanted to leave for extraterrestrials? What would it be?’ I just thought about it and said, ‘Hello, from the children of planet Earth,’” he tells Billboard. “Looking back, it’s a strange feeling to know that there is some piece of your self that is the most distant human-made object in the universe and that’s going to survive long, long after everything.”

The continued fascination in the work of Sagan, who passed away in 1996, has been incredibly gratifying to Nick, who was interviewed for The Farthest and also helped with the Kickstarter efforts. “He’s more present in his absence than a lot of people are in their presence and his work. His scientific work and his understanding of what the stakes are and care for our planet and where we’re going and how to reel us in from our biggest possible mistakes, he did such amazing work at the time that still inspires people to this day,” he says.

Science journalist Timothy Ferris was a friend of Sagan, who recruited him to help put together the record. “Carl was at my place one night, we were listening to music, and he said, ‘you know, there’s a chance that NASA might fund our making a record, in which case would you be interested in working with us? We won’t have much time to put it together,’” Ferris recalls. “It turned out it was only like two months that we had. I said yes and then it got approved rather swiftly and so there followed two months of insanely busy and entirely delightful work.”

 

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Selecting the musical elements to include was a tremendous undertaking. Ferris was very focused on making such a wide breadth of cultures were represented which meant scouring record stores to find world tracks that were obscure at that time. Ferris wanted to include on rock song and science writer Ann Druyan, creative director of the project and Sagan’s future wife, suggested “Johnny B. Goode,” which was far from an easy sell to the rest of the committee. “This seems much less controversial today than it was at the time,” Ferris explains. “Carl himself didn’t like Chuck Berry. The first time he heard the track he had no experience with rock. He and I used to listen mostly to classical. I would occasionally play him a rock track and he was interested but he hadn’t gotten into it. Alan Lomax the folklorist we worked with, he was opposed to Chuck Berry. But it turned out to be a popular choice.”

The primary goal of the Golden Record was to create something that could offer to any unknown being that encountered it a sense of what human life is like. But to Ferris, whether it has or ever will be discovered is far from the point. “I’ll never know, but I think that’s part of the beauty of the record. It would be appreciated by anyone finding the record in the future regardless of how different from humans they may be,” he says. “The record, in itself, says we realize that we will probably never know what happens to this record and we did it any way. There’s something beautiful about that.”