In 1977, the United States launched two unmanned Voyager spacecraft into space to explore the far reaches of our solar system and beyond. Because these two vessels had a better chance than any other man-made object of encountering intelligent extra-terrestrial life, Carl Sagan and a team of scientists were charged with including images and sounds that would help other being learn who we are. The images included pictures of humans eating and drinking, landscapes, DNA, and a page of Sir Isaac Newton’s writings. The audio included whale sounds, and an hour-long recording of the brain waves of Ann Druyan (producer of the PBS series “Cosmos” that made Sagan famous). It also included music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and other composers, folk music from various regions, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson–and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.
There was controversy over including Berry’s song, but Sagan insisted. Nine years later, Sagan and Druyan wrote Berry this letter, on the occasion of Berry’s 60th birthday:
Dear Chuck Berry,
When they tell you your music will live forever, you can usually be sure they’re exaggerating. But Johnny B. Goode is on the Voyager interstellar records attached to NASA’s Voyager spacecraft–now two billion miles from Earth and bound for the stars. These records will last a billion years or more.
Happy 60th birthday with our admiration for the music you have given to this world…
Go, Johnny, go.
There’s a lot that’s poignant about this letter from nearly 50 years ago. For one thing, Berry, who was eight years older than Sagan, probably didn’t expect to outlive him by 20 years. (Sagan died at 62 of bone marrow cancer in 1996.) I’m guessing Berry especially didn’t expect to outlive the very technology used to convey his music out into the universe. Voyager’s audio is carried on LPs made of gold-plated copper, a choice of materials that makes them both very long-lasting and also makes it possible for intelligent extra-terrestrials to calculate their age.
If one of the Voyager probes tumbled into your yard tomorrow, would you have a turntable on hand with which to play the golden records? I wouldn’t. Fortunately for any being who finds the Voyager spacecraft, it also includes a diagram of a turntable and instructions for how to play a record with one.
Will those records ever get played? Unknown. But they have the best possible chance: Voyager 1 left the solar system and ventured into interstellar space in 2012 and is now more than 12 billion miles from Earth, and Voyager 2 is more than 10 billion miles away. Which means they’re further away than any human-made object has ever gone.