POSTED: Sunday, September 16, 2012 - 11:00am
UPDATED: Sunday, September 16, 2012 - 11:05am
NBC NATIONAL NEWS — Imagine being assigned to explain to an extraterrestrial - a space alien - what it means to be an earthling.
To do so, you can put some inscriptions on a gold-plated copper disc.
That was the mission author Ann Druyan undertook nearly four decades ago.
Now, with the twin Voyager spacecraft departing our solar system, she expresses hope someday the messages and recordings her committee put together will be found.
"It would be just stupefying if we are the only intelligent beings," Druyan said during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Wednesday for a commemoration of the Voyager mission.
The twin Voyagers were launched in 1977 for a "grand tour" of the outer planets.
This was made possible by a planetary alignment that recurs once every 176 years.
The trajectories ultimately will take the Voyagers into interstellar space.
During mission planning, the decision was made to attach messages to the spacecraft in case they are encountered by extraterrestrials.
Druyan signed on as creative director for what was called the "Interstellar Message Project."
But where to begin?
How to convey the essence of humanity and planet Earth to an unseen, unimagined stranger?
"It was like designing a Noah's Ark of human culture," Druyan recalled.
Right off the bat, recordings of sounds, the human voice, and music were deemed essential.
This was well before the invention of Compact Disc audio recording, so the sound was etched into grooves on the disc like an old fashioned vinyl LP.
A stylus was thoughtfully included for extraterrestrials without a phonograph player and schematic instructions for playing were etched into a second disc.
The musical selections spanned the globe and millenia.
Druyan confided that her favorites included a cut by Louie Armstrong, and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."
In fact, years later when JPL celebrated the Voyagers reaching Neptune in 1989, Berry traveled to the La Canada Flintridge facility and performed his hits for the earthling scientists.
Also included on the space-bound discs were the sounds of a mother with her newborn, dozens of images of life on earth, and a recording of the brainwaves of a young woman who had just fallen in love.
That would be Druyan, who had begun a relationship with Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer who later reached out to the general public with "Cosmos," the PBS documentary series that became a cultural touchstone of the 1980s.
Druyan is now working on a successor series.
Even before the original "Cosmos," Voyager's cosmic outreach resonated with popular culture.
It inspired the premise of 1979's Star Trek: The Movie, in which unfriendly aliens intercept a fictional Voyager and used it to find their way to Earth with mischief in mind.
Druyan hopes more altruistic aliens will someday discover the real Voyagers with their space age messages in a bottle.
In her fantasy, the ships are found by space cruisers who add the Voyagers to their collection, delivering them to otherworldly graduate students for analysis.
But what will they make of us?
"I hope they'll feel that we had only the best of intentions, and that we knew how limited we were, but we really wanted to make contact with the Cosmos," she says.