30 years after Voyager launch, time to again ask who we are

The Golden Record mounted to the side of the space probe was meant to tell other worlds about life on Earth, but it also holds lessons for society today.

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Thirty years ago, on Aug. 20, 1977, NASA launched a Golden Record into space: a 12-inch, gold-plated disc of music, pictures, sounds, and greetings from planet Earth, bolted to the side of a Voyager space probe.

The idea behind the record was simple. Once Voyager 1 and 2 studied the outer planets – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – they would become the first man-made objects to leave our solar system for interstellar space. Why not include an introduction to Earth on the slim hope that the probes might one day be found by another life-form? We could reach across the galaxy and shake hands.

Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer from Cornell University, led the team creating the record. For months they consulted far and wide to come up with something that would truly reflect the great diversity and potential of life on Earth.

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So what's on the Golden Record?

The team chose 116 pictures, everything from the Great Wall of China to Greek fishing boats to Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees. They added 12 minutes of Earth sounds, including rain, a train whistle, and a human heartbeat. They chose 87-1/2 minutes of music as varied as Peruvian panpipes and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Finally, they included greetings in 55 languages and a message from then-president Jimmy Carter: "We human beings are still divided into nation-states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.

"We cast this message into the cosmos ... a token of … our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours…. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."

When Carter wrote his message in 1977, Americans were dealing with the betrayal of Watergate and the wounds of the Vietnam War. The country was divided; Americans' faith in themselves was shaken; their place in the world uncertain. Still, they asked the question – Who are we? – and sent the answer into the vast expanse of space.

If you focus on the details, the Golden Record has already begun to feel out of date. It does not include, for example, the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003 – a cooperative, international effort to discover, at least on the genetic level, who we are. There is also no mention of the Internet, which allows more than a billion people around the world to communicate in ways that we couldn't have imagined 30 years ago. In the thousands of years it will take the record to reach some other life-form, we will have changed in ways we can't even imagine now.

The real value of the Golden Record, then, may not be what it tells other life-forms about us, thousands of years from now, but what it can remind us of here on Earth today.

We are closer to becoming, as Carter wrote in 1977, "a single global civilization." But while the Internet has allowed for an unprecedented ability to exchange cultural values and ideas, recent news stories illustrate that we also face ever-widening challenges: Polluted dust plumes from China now dirty the air over Los Angeles and San Francisco; Russia has planted its flag on the seabed of the North Pole; and Sara Lee Corporation has disclosed, in the wake of food safety concerns, that ingredients from more than a dozen countries may go into a loaf of its bread – a practice followed by many large food companies.

Counteracting climate change, reducing the threat of terrorist acts, and ensuring that all people have access to adequate water supplies are the kinds of problems that countries cannot solve in isolation. Our new global civilization will need to draw on insights, innovation, and cooperation from around the world.

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, is the kind of cooperative effort needed to address a host of challenges. More than 160 countries have ratified the accord, although the United States is notably absent from this list.

In our new global civilization, countries will need to look beyond their own borders. Now, more than ever, whether we will be able to "survive our time" will depend on our ability to work together.

Thirty years ago, we asked the question – Who are we? – and found an answer in humanity's rich diversity, common goals, and great potential. The anniversary of the Voyager launch is a reminder that it's time to ask the question again.

Barbara Kerley is an award-winning children's book author and a former Peace Corps volunteer. Her latest book is a young adult novel about the Golden Record, called "Greetings from Planet Earth."

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