In 1977, NASA sent two probes—Voyager 1 and Voyager 2—on an interstellar mission. The Voyagers were to go where no probes had gone before: Beyond our solar system, to travel the cosmos forever until they fell apart. NASA described the mission like this:
Both Voyagers are headed towards the outer boundary of the solar system in search of the heliopause, the region where the Sun's influence wanes and the beginning of interstellar space can be sensed. The heliopause has never been reached by any spacecraft; the Voyagers may be the first to pass through this region, which is thought to exist somewhere from 8 to 14 billion miles from the Sun.
In 2013, NASA confirmed that Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 left our solar system. National Geographic noted at the time that the historic moment was still just the beginning of the Voyagers’ journeys—the two will likely be traversing space for more than 40,000 years to come.
Destined for greatness, the Voyagers were each equipped with a message for any intelligent beings that might exist beyond our reach, or beyond our lifetime. The Golden Record, literally a gold-plated phonograph record, contains “Scenes from Earth,” “Music from Earth,” “Sounds from Earth,” and “Greetings to the Universe.” In their totality, the items in each category are supposed to paint an evocative picture of life on Earth as it was in the late 1970s.
Recently, NASA uploaded each of the 55 “Greetings to the Universe” to its SoundCloud account:
The greetings, in 55 languages, are all variations on “hello,” and for such a historic mission, seem a bit slapdash—turns out wrangling 55 people to deliver messages to aliens in their native tongues is no easy feat. They run the greeting gamut: The Hebrew greeting is just one world, “Shalom,” and the Gujarati greeting hopes for a response (“Greetings from a human being of the Earth. Please contact"). The English greeting is spoken by a child, on behalf of more children: “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”
The book Murmurs of Earth, published in 1978, offers the definitive story of the Golden Record. Written by Carl Sagan (who led the charge to put a message to aliens in space), F.D. Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan, the book offers an inside look into the challenges and triumphs of putting the Golden Record together, including the difficulties of recording the “Greetings to the Universe.”
Sagan thought including the “hellos” in human languages was a long shot. “It is barely possible,” he wrote in Murmurs of Earth, “that extraterrestrial civilizations might… know something of human languages, perhaps through the occasional interception of television broadcast from the planet Earth.”
Still, it seemed important to include the greetings, and to make sure that several different languages were represented. So Sagan pushed forward. At first, he thought this part of the Record would be a breeze: “Perhaps naively I thought that the most appropriate organization to say ‘Hello’ to the cosmos in a few dozen languages would be the United Nations.”
But bureaucracy soon reared it’s ugly head:
On so weighty a matter as saying ‘Hello,’ the United States Mission informed that it could not act on its own. I then tried the Outer Space Committee, but was told that the committee cannot itself initiate any ‘action’; this can be accomplished only by national delegations. So back to the U.S. mission. It would act only if so instructed by the State Department. But the State Department, I soon learned, would act only if so requested by NASA, with a firm guarantee by NASA that there was definitely to be a Voyager record and that any UN greetings would be included.
At that point, NASA had not guaranteed that the record would be included on the mission, and Sagan found himself stuck. He turned to NASA’s associate administrator for international affairs Arnold Frutkin, who was able to convince the State Department to get the UN to help out. NASA eventually set up a recording session with the UN, but only gave Sagan a day's notice before it took place. Not surprisingly, things didn’t go as Sagan had hoped:
[Timothy] Ferris arrived to find a subset of members of the UN Outer Space Committee assembled and not even a close approximation of the languages spoken on Earth represented… Ferris was permitted to given [sic] an introductory statement asking for ‘short greetings,’ but this phrase means something quite different at the United Nations than in usual spoken language. Each delegate clearly wished to make a speech.
Sagan went on to describe the verbose greetings given by the UN delegates: A representative from France read Baudelaire and Nigeria’s delegate offered a detailed description of where Nigeria lies on the map (which he prefaced with “as you probably know.”)
Unprompted, the UN’s Secretary General recorded a message, which meant Sagan and his team had to put in a request for the president to record one as well. President Carter instead opted to write a letter. Because the president’s written statement was included, it was decided that a list of U.S. representatives should be included as well.
After all this, the recordings were a disappointment. The languages were selected pretty much at random—depending on who showed up for the recording—and Sagan’s dream of having male and female voices equally represented were dashed by the fact that the majority of UN delegates were men. Coupled with the too-long greetings, the recordings were basically unusable. Sagan and his team turned to plan B:
I recalled that Cornell University, where I teach, has a very wide range of foreign-language departments, and with the aid of Shirley Arden of my staff, Linda Sagan, and many others, a representative set of short greetings from the human community was assembled.
Linda Salzman Sagan described how the recording finally unfolded:
The speakers were chosen because of their fluency of language, not because of any special scientific knowledge. They were given no instructions on what to say other than that it was to be a greeting to possible extraterrestrials and that it must be brief.
After Linda and her team had located as many of the language speakers as they could, they recorded the greetings in two sessions at Cornell. Linda describes an exciting atmosphere:
While one person was being recorded, the others waited in a connecting office just outside the studio. [Recorder Joe] Leeming left the audio speakers in the office on so that the people who were about to record could actually hear the voice of the person being recorded in the studio. This led to a warm feeling of camaraderie and excitement among the participants.
Ultimately, the Cornell records were used on the Golden Record. We're glad things shook out the way they did.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.