Book review – The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record

What an appropriately punny title. Indeed, the Voyager Golden Records have boldly gone where no records have gone before. A record with images, spoken greetings, everyday sounds, and classical, contemporary and world music intended as an interstellar hello. Writer, record collector, and self-professed astronomy geek Jonathan Scott here tells the story of one of the most unusual human artefacts to have ever been sent into deep space.

The Vinyl Frontier

The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record“, written by Jonathan Scott, published by Bloomsbury Sigma (a Bloomsbury Publishing imprint)  in March 2019 (hardback, 288 pages)

Quick recap for those who, like me, were born too late. Voyagers 1 and 2 were two robotic probes launched by NASA in 1977 to study the outer solar system. A fortunate planetary alignment only occurring once every 175 years meant that the probes could reach Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto on a Planetary Grand Tour using gravity assist manoeuvres (or gravitational slingshots). After this, they would enter interstellar space, the first human-made objects to do so.

These were the heady days of the ’60s and’70s, when we beamed the Arecibo Message at a star cluster 25,000 light-years away, and Frank Drake kicked off the first Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) meeting by throwing the idea of the Drake equation at his peers (see e.g. The Drake Equation: Estimating the Prevalence of Extraterrestrial Life through the Ages). In short, the interest in extraterrestrial life and the possibility of communicating with them was at a high. It was in this climate that the famous astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that NASA should include a message for extraterrestrials with the Voyager probes, on the infinitesimally small change that, in a distant future, they might chance upon them.

As Scott explains, there was a precedent here, with Sagan and Drake both involved in several other messages included with earlier missions. For the Voyager probes, Sagan wanted something bigger, a calling card from humanity. As he brainstormed with friends and colleagues, the idea emerged it should incorporate art, not just hard science. Before long, the idea of a record filled with music, sounds, and human greetings emerged. Oh, and pictures. Encoding those presented a challenge in itself. Each probe would be fitted with a copy of the disc.

“[…] the Voyager Golden Records have boldly gone where no records have gone before.”

From this point, Scott takes the reader through the hectic period of a few months in which Sagan and a small group of hand-picked artists, engineers, and scientists feverishly worked on putting together a unique sound essay that would show humanity on a good day. Funding was tight, deadlines tighter, and space on the record terribly limited. Worst, NASA could torpedo it last-minute if it didn’t like the contents.

The whole exercise was rather surreal, involving a head-strong ethnomusicologist and verbose UN delegates who were to provide greetings in as many foreign languages as possible (an exercise in herding cats). There was a veritable torrent of potential musical pieces and pictures from around the world to consider, and, of course, the painstaking process of clearing copyright for each and every item that did end up on the record. And lest we forget, this was the pre-internet era. Phone calls had to be made, letters written, record stores and private collections scoured, analogue equipment invented on the spot.

All participants wrote of their experiences contributing to this project in the book Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record that was published a year after the launch. Scott credits it as being incredibly important source material in writing this book, next to interviewing those people still alive in 2017. Even so, it leaves plenty of room for him to let his imagination run riot as he writes raucously funny passages how certain phone calls or meetings must have gone, or how certain requests for help must have been received. His portrayal is loving and respectful, sometimes preferring to leave certain people at a happy moment in their story arc. Equally, he is honest and candid – as the 2017 documentary The Farthest also made clear, the contributors to this project have sometimes wildly different memories of what happened or who did what exactly, and Scott doesn’t gloss over discrepancies.

“[…] Scott lets his imagination run riot as he writes raucously funny passages how certain phone calls or meetings must have gone […]”

Why write this book more than 40 years after the facts? Partially because some errors and details of what exactly went on the record only came to light in the wake of the incredibly successful 2017 Kickstarter campaign properly reissue it. Bar an unsatisfactory 1992 CD-ROM version, and in recent years the sounds and greetings being available on the NASA Soundcloud page, there was no good version until Ozma Records released The Voyager Golden Record, sourced from the archived master. In the process, they did an extremely thorough job fact-checking and properly attributing all contributions.

And partially because, after Murmurs of Earth, nobody has really looked back on this exceptional endeavour. Unsurprisingly, the record quickly took a backseat to the phenomenal observations the Voyager probes beamed back. Scott gives a very brief overview of their main achievements, but, being a record collector foremost, he purposefully decided to focus The Vinyl Frontier on the story of the record. And this is perfectly defensible. Readers interested in the scientific story of the probes can choose from the 2015 book The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, or, slightly older, the 2011 pop-science book Voyager: Exploration, Space, and the Third Great Age of Discovery. For more technical details on the probes, there are NASA Voyager 1 & 2 Owners’ Workshop Manual and NASA’s Voyager Missions: Exploring the Outer Solar System and Beyond (which apparently suffers from poor quality illustrations). Also worth mentioning is the more scholarly Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft, which is part of the Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight series published by the University of Nebraska Press.

If there is one omission in an otherwise fine book, it is that, bar the two photos on the dustjacket, it contains no illustrations. None. When Scott describes in words some of the images that went onto the record this left me scratching my head. Surely, this will have been discussed with the publisher? However, seeing that even NASA’s JPL page shows only a selection due to copyright restrictions, I think that answers my question. But were there really no photos available of the record, or of it being produced?

The Vinyl Frontier is a loving, fun and incredibly readable tribute to a remarkable artefact. If you admire Carl Sagan or have a soft spot for space exploration, this book comes highly recommended.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Vinyl Frontier paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended products mentioned in this review:



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