If you could write a short message to aliens on behalf of all people on Earth, what would you say? This was the challenge for U.S. president Jimmy Carter in 1977, in the lead-up to the launch of the Voyager 1 space probe. While Voyager’s mission was one of exploration and discovery, it also carried aboard a ‘diplomatic mission’ of sorts: the Voyager Golden Record. The record, curated by well-known scientist Carl Sagan, was an ‘upgrade’ on the informational plaques carried aboard the earlier Pioneer probes: the Voyager record contained both images and sounds from Earth, as well as messages from Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
Carter’s short, four-sentence message in the ‘letter to E.T.‘ is a masterclass in eloquence and diplomacy, with the president noting humanity’s on-going struggle with its own demons, perhaps in the context of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear apocalypse: “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
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. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.
Of course, the note is extremely unlikely to ever be recovered by an alien species, and even in that remote instance it’s debatable whether it would be deciphered and understood in human terms. Perhaps the note is more for all of us; an explicit acknowledgement of the troubles we cause each other – but also of our in-built desire to overcome our faults and become something better.
Interestingly, President Carter had previously had what he thought might be an alien encounter: in 1969, Carter spied a mysterious pulsating light in the skies of Georgia. “It was the darndest thing I’ve ever seen,” he confessed years later. “One thing’s for sure, I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve seen unidentified objects in the sky” (read Carter’s UFO report, filed in 1973, via this PDF). However, in 2007, in an interview with the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Carter clarified his stance, saying that though the object was unidentified, he did not think it was an alien craft, stating that he did not believe aliens had visited our planet.
It is a strange irony then that Jimmy Carter, through his ‘letter to E.T.’, may actually end up visiting aliens on their planet. On September 1st, 1977, President Carter’s note was “cast into the cosmos” aboard Voyager 1, and has now moved beyond the edge of our solar system, continuing to dive into the vast loneliness of extra-solar space in search of a recipient.