In 1977, NASA sent two probesā€”Voyager 1 and Voyager 2ā€”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 missionĀ 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 notedĀ at the time that the historic moment was still just the beginning of the Voyagersā€™ journeysā€”the two will likely be traversingĀ 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 ā€œScenes from Earth,ā€ ā€œMusic from Earth,ā€ ā€œSounds from Earth,ā€ and ā€œGreetings to theĀ Universe.ā€ 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 ā€œGreetings toĀ the Universeā€ to its SoundCloud account:

The greetings, in 55 languages, are all variations on ā€œhello,ā€Ā and for such aĀ historicĀ mission, seem a bit slapdashā€”turns out wrangling 55Ā 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, ā€œShalom,ā€ and the Gujarati greeting hopes for a response (ā€œGreetings from a human being of the Earth. Please contact"). The English greeting is spoken by a child, on behalf of more children: ā€œHello from the children of planet Earth.ā€


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 ā€œGreetings to theĀ Universe.ā€

A reproduction shows the text of the greetings spoken in several languages. From Murmurs of Earth.

Sagan thought including theĀ ā€œhellosā€ in human languages was a long shot. ā€œIt is barely possible,ā€ he wrote in Murmurs of Earth, ā€œthat extraterrestrial civilizations mightā€¦ know something of human languages, perhaps through the occasional interception of television broadcast from the planet Earth.ā€


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: ā€œPerhaps naively I thought that the most appropriate organization to say ā€˜Helloā€™ to the cosmos in a few dozen languages would be the United Nations.ā€

But bureaucracy soon reared itā€™s ugly head:

On so weighty a matter as saying ā€˜Hello,ā€™ 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 ā€˜actionā€™; 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. HeĀ turned to NASAā€™s associate administrator for international affairs Arnold Frutkin, who was able to convince the State Department to getĀ the UN to help out.Ā NASA eventually set up a recording session with the UN, but onlyĀ gave Sagan a day's noticeĀ before it took place. Not surprisingly, things didnā€™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 representedā€¦ Ferris was permitted to given [sic] an introductory statement asking for ā€˜short greetings,ā€™ 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 Nigeriaā€™s delegate offered a detailed description of where Nigeria lies on the map (which he prefaced with ā€œas you probably know.ā€)


Unprompted, the UNā€™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 presidentā€™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 randomā€”depending on who showed up for the recordingā€”and Saganā€™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.