Carl Sagan personally assembled and promoted the first physical message sent into space.

Carl Sagan, NASA, The Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager Golden Record, and the Voyager Program

Carl Sagan and NASA gained popularity when the longtime space program scientist created the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record to be sent to space. Sagan’s public awareness campaign built around the plaque and record helped secure funding for Pioneer 10 (1972) and 11 (1973) and the Voyager 1 and 2 (1977), it also helped to popularize both Sagan and NASA, renewing public interest in space travel and science.[1][2][3]

Carl Sagan discusses Voyager’s accomplishments

Exploiting the Alignment of the Planets

In the early 70’s, scientists at the space program realized that they had a short amount of time to take advantage of a particular alignment of the planets in our solar system.  The alignment they had at that moment in time wouldn’t occur again for about 170 years. There was a only a short time left to take advantage of a planetary alignment that would allow for spacecraft to reach “escape velocity.” If that could be done, the spacecraft could travel further than it would be able to if it only utilized the planet’s orbits and it would allow for travel with minimal fuel usage. The problem was that the window was closing, and NASA lacked the funding to make the deadline.

Carl Sagan had worked on the space program since its inception. He had been an advisor to NASA since the 50’s when one of his duties included briefing the Apollo astronauts before their flights to the Moon. He compiled the plaques and disks himself and successfully promoted them to the public to get people interested in the space program. His publicity initiative increased funding for NASA and ensured the timely launch of Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, and then the 1977 Voyager program which sent out two probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, to the outer Solar System.

Hans Mark: Origin Story of Carl Sagan’s Plaque on Pioneer 10

FACT: Like their predecessors Pioneer 10 and 11, which featured a simple plaque, both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched by NASA with a message aboard — a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate to extraterrestrials a story of the world of humans on Earth. The Voyager 1 probe is currently the farthest human made object from Earth. Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space, the region between stars where the galactic plasma is present.

The Story of the Voyager Launch

The Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977 to take advantage of a favorable alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and are today exploring the outer boundary of the heliosphere currently in interstellar space.

Although their original mission was to study only the planetary systems of Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 continued to Uranus and Neptune, and both Voyagers are now exploring interstellar space. Their mission has been extended three times, and both probes continue to collect and relay useful scientific data. Both Uranus and Neptune have not been visited by any other probe other than Voyager 2.

On August 25, 2012, data from Voyager 1 indicated that it had become the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, traveling “further than anyone, or anything, in history”.

As of 2013, Voyager 1 was moving with a velocity of 17 kilometers per second (11 mi/s) relative to the Sun. Voyager 2 is expected to enter interstellar space by 2016, and its plasma spectrometer should provide the first direct measurements of the density and temperature of the interstellar plasma.

6. Pioneer Plaque | The Beauty of Diagrams

What is On the Plaques and Golden Records We Sent into Space?

The plaques contain a few simple images that you can see in the video above including our solar system as well as an etching of a man and woman that Carl Sagan’s second wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, created.

The golden record, has more detailed content than the plaque and took almost a year to compile. It contains 116 images that attempt to convey who we humans are and what we know. These are accompanied by Morse code, sounds from earth, and music from artists including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Valya Balkanska, and controversially, Chuck Berry. Rock music was considered “juvenile” at the time.

Carl Sagan suggested that The Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun” be included on the record, but the record company EMI that held the copyrights to the song, declined due to copyright concerns.

Carl Sagan on the Voyager Golden Records

FACT: NASA put all the contents of the Gold Record on Soundcloud, you can check it out here.

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”— President Jimmy Carter

Carl Sagan, Ed Stone – Voyager Missions, 1990, Solar System Image & New Findings

After 37 years of Flight,Voyager 1 in interstellar space, NASA confirms


Carl Sagan created the first physical message spent to space, but perhaps the more interesting part of the story is Sagan’s public relations campaign (a campaign that seems to be, from what I can tell, something that starts and ends with Sagan, as notably he didn’t even tell NASA about the plaques as he was trying to avoid the inventible bureaucracy).

Through a certain lens, one can argue that the message itself, despite being of personal interest to Sagan, was little more than a tool to create excitement about the space program and secure funding.

While some might see the whole story as somewhat of a conspiracy, it perhaps better serves as a reminder that “shaping public opinion” isn’t always a malicious thing.

In this case, humanity managed to avoid having to wait about 170 years to effectively launch the voyager campaign due to Sagan and his knack for getting people as excited about space and science as he was.


  1. Voyager program
  2. Voyager Golden Record
  3. Pioneer plaque

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