On this date in 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 space probe. Counterintuitively, Voyager 1 launched sixteen days after Voyager 2, but the two probes have close enough birthdays, all things considered, for us to think of them as twins. And together the Voyager probes have a powerful hold on our imaginations.
Voyager 1 beat its twin to be the first human-made object to leave the solar system. Voyager 1 was only designed for a four-year mission to Saturn, but it and its twin and have continued phoning home even as they crossed into interstellar space, sending little bursts of data from about twelve billion miles away. (Sidebar: this wonderful article about the Deep Space Network and all the distant probes we keep in touch with.)
Even as the Voyager probes slip out of the solar system, they loom large in our culture. 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which came just two years after the Voyager probes launched, builds its climax around an encounter with the mysterious V’ger, a powerful and mysterious intelligence. V’ger turns out to be—spoiler alert for a 39-year-old movie—Voyager 6, a fictional probe launched late in the 20th century, which, in its hundreds of years wandering interstellar space, became intelligent and self-aware—and curious about carbon-based life.
Sentience isn’t the only fate we imagine for the Voyager probes. Other than V’ger, the Voyagers are probably best known for the Golden Record, phonograph records stowed away on each of the probes just in case they’re ever found by… whoever out in space might find them.
The Golden Record, devised by a team led by Carl Sagan, includes photographs of Earth and recordings of whalesong, children’s laughter, and greetings in dozens of human languages. There’s a beautiful story about the Golden Record’s birth—and the birth of so much more—on the “Space” episode of Radiolab. Another take on the Golden Record is Anthony Michael Morena’s book, The Voyager Record, which interweaves the history of the record with lyrical, and surprisingly funny, musings about its meaning.
One of the most interesting things about the Golden Record is the question of who might find it. Hundreds or thousands of years from now, a powerful spacefaring civilization might come across one of these antiquated little probes. They might see the golden disc, obviously devised by a primitively intelligent civilization. They might figure out the instructions, how to play the record to project images and sound. And, it’s entirely possible, the ancient history these spacefarers discover on the record may be their own.