Cover of the Voyager Golden Record, carrying the sights and sounds of Earth. (NASA)
Cover of the Voyager Golden Record, carrying the sights and sounds of Earth. (NASA)

The Close of Cosmos, and Golden Voices in the Stars

Two golden records, each carrying the sights and sounds of planet Earth, are hurtling toward the stars at thousands of miles per hour. Borne into the sky by the twin Voyager spacecraft, these interstellar time capsules are coded in the key of science. They are Earth’s emissaries to the cosmos, chosen to represent our planet if ever the disks, each the size of a large dinner plate, are clutched by alien hands.

As Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey reminded us during its final episode, “No other objects touched by human hands have ever ventured this far from home.” Indeed, the two Voyager spacecraft are sailing ever farther from home, exploring the solar system’s frontier like the maritime surveyors of yesteryear.

Except these explorers are never coming back.

For the next decade or so, the spacecraft will continue to send messages full of data to their home planet. But then, eventually, their power supplies will dwindle and those messages will fade. As the silent spacecraft sail through an even quieter cosmic sea, their primary mission will no longer be to gather data. It will be to ferry the murmurs of Earth, inscribed onto those golden records, through the darkness.

The committee tasked with selecting the Golden Record’s playlist, chaired by Carl Sagan, had about six months to figure out what to put on there. Among others, Beethoven, Peruvian panpipes, the roar of a rocket launch, photos of Jane Goodall and the Great Wall of China, and greetings spoken in 55 languages made it aboard.

My mom, Amahl, is one of those Voyager voices. She’s speaking her native Arabic, and her message is simple: “Greetings to our friends in the stars. We wish that we will meet you someday.”

One day, late in the spring of 1977, Linda Salzman Sagan (then Carl’s wife) had asked my mother for help. She wanted to know if Mom would lend her voice to the Voyager record. Linda was searching for fluent speakers of the many languages to be featured on the record, preferably people living near Ithaca, New York. Mom, who was already helping gather photos for the record and who worked on Cornell University’s Ithaca campus, was ideal.

So she carefully composed a greeting expressing the desire to make contact with the beings that might listen to her voice. She practiced for days. Mom says she was most concerned about speaking in her clearest, most rhythmic Arabic. “I was speaking on behalf of all the millions of people who speak Arabic,” she says. “And I wanted to do it justice.”

Mom was nervous when she recorded her 6-second greeting. But then the task was over, her voice immortalized. “It was pretty organized. You walk in, do your greeting, and off you go,” she recalls. It was early June.

In August, she and my dad went to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where they watched the launch of Voyager 2 on August 20, 1977. Voyager 1 launched 16 days later. And now, 37 years later, the spacecraft are still speeding toward that undiscovered country.

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Mom and Dad watch the Voyager 2 launch, along with my brother Paul and Bill Howard (left), then at NSF. (Amahl Drake)

As Mom watched this final episode of Cosmos, and the part describing Voyager, she says she was struck by a tremendous emotional punch. “Of all the people who are inhabiting this planet, only a few of us got to have our voices on [the record]. And even though it may or may not ever be intercepted, just the idea of it representing human beings and floating through space…,” she says. “That’s quite humbling.”

I like knowing that my mom’s voice, as it sounded in the spring of 1977, is boldly going where no spacecraft has gone before. The golden records, carrying traces of our planet into the cosmos from which it came, will live for another billion years. Hers and the other Voyager voices, plus the songs and sounds and images on the record, could very well be the longest-lived traces of Earth, the longest-lived pieces of evidence proving that humanity once existed.

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Voyager 2 heads for the stars on August 20, 1977. (Amahl Drake)