The year was 1977. Jimmy Carter was president. Rod Stewart topped the Billboard chart with "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)." The economy was recovering from recession. Oil was scarce. Ties may have been wide, but patience, among many, was thin. Into that turbulent and indolent and somewhat cynical world -- and on behalf of it -- NASA launched two little probes, tiny even by spaceship standards, from Cape Canaveral. Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2, were initially meant to explore Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons. They did that. But then they kept going. And going. And going. At a rate of 35,000 miles per hour. One of them, almost 35 years to the day after it left Earth behind, finally ventured beyond the influence of the body that has defined so much of life on Earth: the sun.
The Voyager probes are technically unmanned; in another sense, however, they carry all of humanity with them as they speed through space. Each craft bears an object that is, in every way, a record -- of Earth, of humanity, of humanity's drive to reach and strive and dream and connect. The two epic mementos, given the sunny hue of their aluminum coverings, have been dubbed the Golden Records. They were the product of Carl Sagan and a team that, in January 1977, realized the far-traveling probes would stand a better chance than most human spacecraft would of encountering extraterrestrial life. So they decided to undertake a task that was both uniquely human and uniquely of its moment: They would make a record that would, if discovered by aliens, represent humanity. They would make a time capsule of human civilization. One that would, as NASA puts it, "communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials." An artifact that would be epic and Quixotic in equal measure.