Book: The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of NASA’s Interstellar Mixtape (Jonathan Scott, 2019)

I have been actively collecting records for nearly four decades now and so have a fair-sized library numbering a couple of thousand discs.  I don’t have anything extremely rare.  It’s not like I have a copy of Yesterday and Today by The Beatles with the pulled “butcher” sleeve.  My original copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico is the stereo version and the banana has been peeled off. 

But there’s one record of which nobody has an original copy of in their collection and nobody ever will.  There are only two copies of this strange, gold-plated disc and they are currently more than twelve billion miles from Earth, each on one of the Voyager spacecrafts.

Jonathan Scott tells the fascinating story of the conception, creation and production of these discs in The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of NASA’s Interstellar Mixtape.  Most writers would have been made this a bone-dry read filled with technical minutia only those in a particular field could understand.  Fortunately, Scott are a very readable style and a good sense of humor.  He’s even willing to admit when he doesn’t fully understand some of the science, and I appreciate his candor.

Although the author didn’t work on the Voyager project, the book wisely starts with his musical tastes and, like so many of us, an obsession with mix tapes in his youth.  As the author’s note says, “If I’d been in charge of the Voyager Golden Record, aliens would assume humanity had three chords”.  I can relate to that.

The story of the Voyager records really begins with the plaque carried on Pioneer 10 five years prior.  Carl Sagan, who worked on both projects, helped to design the engravings on that plaque.  These etchings were meant to convey what was determined to be the most essential information about humans, and conveyed in a way aliens millions or billions of years from now might be able to interpret. 

Most immediately noticeable among the illustrations are the outlines of a naked man and woman facing toward the viewer.  Some people took offense at the race of the figures, as they are obviously Caucasian.  Others found fault with the male, and only the male, having his arm raised in a gesture of greeting, as this could be implied females are not leaders and would not initiate contact. 

But what a great many lost their shit over was a single short line, that which indicated the vulva of the female form.  Things got so out of hand that some of the more hysterical news pieces of the time accused NASA of distributing pornography.  I wish I could laugh and say how naïve people were at that time, but then there’s hardly a day as of late where there isn’t news about another book being pulled from libraries, or a school forbidden from performing a certain musical or play.

So that was fresh in Sagan’s mind when he started to consider what should accompany the Voyager probes.  He solicited ideas from many great minds inside and out of the scientific community.  One idea I especially liked was this simple phrase put forward by Arthur C. Clarke for future Earth travelers who might find it: “Please leave me alone.  Let me go on to the stars”.  Astrophysicist A.G.W. Cameron had the novel idea of painting the plaque with uranium so that somebody could tell by its rate of decay when it was launched.

One idea which kept surfacing in discussions was that this should be an opportunity to communicate more about humans than just science; that we should also present a picture of who we are and what is means to be human.  B.M. Oliver floated the idea of using sound to accomplish this.  Sagan immediately latched onto the idea but knew Oliver’s recommendation of using magnetic tape was impractical, given the harsh conditions the craft would doubtlessly encounter.  It had to be something more permanent, thus the idea of putting this on a gramophone disc. 

But Sagan also realized he needed the input of others to realize this project.  Tim Ferris was obsessed with science and music.  He actually wrote science articles for Rolling Stone in the 1970’s.  Imagine that: science articles in that magazine.  One of his more famous pieces was titled “How do we know where we are if we’ve never been anywhere else?”. That one was such a hit that Stones bassist Bill Wyman actually interrupted a party to read the whole thing aloud to his guests.  A science article in Rolling Stone that was so entertaining an actual Rolling Stone read it to a large group of partygoers.  That blows my mind.

Tim’s fiancée at the time was fellow writer Ann Druyan.  Although Tim had met Sagan previously, Ann was first introduced to him party Nora Ephron was throwing in NYC.  A while after this party, Sagan was approached for a sort of children’s science show in the vein of Sesame Street.  He reached out to Tim and Ann for that project which, needless to say, didn’t materialize.  But he reached out to them again when the idea surfaced for the Voyager record project.

After considerable discussion regarding what audio to put on the record, it was decided it would be a mixtape representing as diverse of a representation possible of the planet’s myriad cultures.  Tim and Ann sought advice from legendary musicologist Alan Lomax.  One of the first selections he played for them was “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and that became the first track selected for the record.  Other selections making the cut were a Blind Willie Johnson number and a recording of a Georgian men’s chorus.  The latter would cause a panic while the record was being prepped for mastering, when a concern was raised that nobody knew what was being sung in the latter track. 

There is also a compendium of sounds of the planet, including a goofy laugh that is later revealed to be Sagan’s.  Then there’s a morse code message: “Ad astra per aspera” (to the stars with difficulties). 

A late consideration that introduced many bureaucratic hurdles into the project was to include greetings from as many languages as possible.  A naïve person might go to the UN assuming whomever was there representing a country at the time would be happy to assist with recording a basic message. At least, that’s what Sagan and his cohorts tried to do. 

First, they were taken to task for not first going through the proper diplomatic channels.  Then, when they did get messages, the results were mostly long and convoluted.  There were also protests from some representatives that certain nations should not be included. 

In the end, a cocktail party is thrown for the speakers they wanted and, once properly lubricated, the guests had no difficulty recording more appropriate messages.  In the end, 55 languages are represented, including the extinct Latin and Sumerian.  An oversight was corrected later when, realizing there were no voices of children, a six-year-old Nick Sagan was recorded saying, “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”

A key person on the project is Jon Lomberg, who introduced himself to Sagan via fan letter.  Lomberg describes himself as being born to make interstellar images.  And so he was recruited to help determine how to communicate key information to whomever might intercept one of these probes.  One of my favorite anecdotes from this book is how neither man had seen a picture of the other so, when he Lomberg went to pick up Sagan at the airport, he wrote a fairly length mathematical formula (Drake’s equation) on a placard.  Sagan, indeed, recognized it and walked right up to him.  Another strange tangent involving Lomberg is he would occasionally run into pianist Glenn Gould at the copy machine at the CBC radio buildings where they were both freelancers.

The most surprising thing I learned from this book is the Voyager record contains a visual component in addition to audio.  The grooves of a disc can contain many types of information as waveforms.  Initially, it was calculated only 12 still black and white images could be sent on the single-sided disc.  Each image would be 500 x 500 lines (or 250,000 pixels of 4 bits per pixel) and take three minutes of playtime. 

In the end, room was found for 166 images (and in color, no less), yet a late development still chafes many of those who worked on the project.  In a move not unlike the public outrage over the nude female figure on the Pioneer plaque, NASA insisted the names all federal senators and representatives of the time be represented on slides, including the committees on which they served.  So, four pages are filled with this information in tiny type—information that isn’t relevant today, let alone billions of years from now.  I shouldn’t be surprised at the hubris displayed, and yet I am.

The mastering was done at Columbia Records in New York City.  The cutter was Vladimir Meller, who escaped Czechoslovakia to find asylum in the United States.  In this book, he reveals the difficulty of cutting a lacquer for a half-hour record, let alone one nearly an hour long.  The problem is, the smaller the grooves, the more likely the needle is to skip.  Still, he finished the job and, as cutters are wont to do, he hand-etched a message into the runout groove: “To the Makers of Music – All Worlds, All Times”.

At the last minute, it was that message which nearly scuttled the project.  A NASA inspector approved the record in all regards except that message, as it was not part of the design plan.  Sagan managed to convince the inspector to overlook this and clear the record for inclusion on the craft. 

Such is the bizarre project resulting in the record which will likely outlive the species that produced it.  The Vinyl Frontier is an amazing book full of fascinating tales surrounding the creation of those golden discs, stories revealing both the cooperation and petty bickering involved in the process.  In a way, it is an even more complete snapshot of what it means to be human than what is preserved on those records.