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40 Years Ago, NASA Launched Message To Aliens Into Deep Space


Forty years ago this month, NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Its mission was to explore space, and it carried audio greetings, music, animal sounds and images of people and our planet. NPR's Christopher Joyce spoke with Ann Druyan, one of the creators of this interstellar message, about how it was put together.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The message was astronomer Carl Sagan's idea. Let's send a pocket history of us into space. If there's life out there, maybe they'll find it. There would be images, equations, solar system maps as well as sounds on a phonograph record - after all, this was the 1970s - a record made of gold. Sagan asked Ann Druyan to be the creative director of the project.

ANN DRUYAN: When he told me about the record, he said, and we're going to have greetings in all these human languages. And I looked at him, and I said, just human languages? How do you know that those are going to be the ones that are most open to interpretation? And he just gave me this look, and I knew that he and I were completely on the same wavelength.

JOYCE: So there were animal sounds - whales, for example...


JOYCE: ...And a chimpanzee.


DRUYAN: So it was a kind of enthusiastic collaboration with people yelling out the names of different animals and languages and buildings and all of - and pieces of music of course - all of those possibilities.

JOYCE: Druyan wanted Beethoven, but she also wanted to rock 'n' roll.

DRUYAN: I wanted it to be by one of the geniuses and progenitors of rock 'n' roll, one of the inventors. And I felt it should be Chuck Berry.

JOYCE: Sagan didn't like rock and roll.


JOYCE: But Chuck Berry's classic song "Johnny B. Goode" made the cut.


JOYCE: The team had other disagreements. They debated whether to show humanity's ugly side - Auschwitz, the Cambodian genocide. Sagan argued against it.

DRUYAN: He was concerned that it would be misconstrued as a threat. And he wasn't really certain that it would be understood for what it was - an expression of failure and regret on our part.

JOYCE: Instead, the recording features friendly greetings in numerous languages, such as one in the Amoy dialect of southern China.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Amoynese).

JOYCE: Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time. Visiting Earth to eat actually worries critics of interstellar outreach. Advertising our location could be a recipe, quite literally, for disaster. Druyan is having none of it.

DRUYAN: You know, the idea of, like, don't tell them where we are 'cause they'll come and eat us for lunch - if you're traveling in space, then you probably also figured out how to get lunch without traveling the astonishing distances between the stars.

JOYCE: Druyan says one of her fondest memories came 12 years after the 1977 launch of the two spacecraft. There was a big party at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in California. She and Sagan arrived late with a surprise guest - Chuck Berry.

DRUYAN: All of a sudden, Chuck Berry came out in his white suit, and the opening chords of "Johnny B. Goode" echoed through the night. And the hundreds of scientists and engineers who'd been involved, technicians, everyone and their families were rocking out that night.

JOYCE: The two Voyagers are now billions and billions of miles from Earth. Any time now, we could be getting a message back from space. Hey, Earthlings, take me to "Johnny B. Goode." Christopher Joyce, NPR News.


CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode who never ever learned to read or write... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.