– Spring 2013

‘Friends of Space, How Are You All? Have You Eaten Yet?’ Or, Why Talk to Aliens Even if We Can’t

Trevor Paglen

View of the Pioneer 10 space probe showing the location of the Pioneer Plaque, 1972. Courtesy NASA


In late 1971 science reporter Richard Hoagland climbed up the metal ladder at the hangar-like thermal-vacuum test facility at TRW Systems in Redondo Beach, just south of Los Angeles. It was dark. Inside a cavernous chamber, the Pioneer 10 spacecraft was undergoing a week-long test regimen designed to simulate the vacuum and extreme temperatures of deep space. As he climbed up towards the quartz-glass viewing window, Hoagland could see light emanating from the chamber.

Pioneer 10 was going to do something unprecedented. The spacecraft would mark humanity’s first venture towards the outer planets and would deliver the first close-up pictures of Jupiter on a fly-by of the great gas giant. But there was something else. On its fly-by, Pioneer would accumulate so much speed from the slingshot effect of Jupiter’s gravity that it would achieve escape velocity from the sun. After studying Jupiter, Pioneer would hurtle on towards the infinite blackness of interstellar space.

Gold aluminium cover of the record The Sounds of the Earth, designed to protect the two identical 12-inch gold-plated copper discs that travelled aboard the space probes Voyager 1 and 2, launched on 5 September and 20 August 1977 respectively. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech ‘The inside of the chamber was painted black,’ Hoagland remembers, ‘and there’s this gleaming creature inside, like a praying mantis pinned to a velvet surface.’1 The spacecraft’s gold and Mylar shielding gleamed in the darkness. ‘It looked like an imprisoned insect waiting to be born… a huge insect waiting to be set free.’ Then a revelation: ‘I’m looking at this thing and absolutely out of

  1. Unless otherwise stated, Richard Hoagland’s recollections are from an interview with the author via telephone on 8 September 2012.

  2. For the Pioneer 11, the next spacecraft launched by NASA, in 1973, a second Pioneer Plaque, with the same engraving, was also placed on-board.

  3. Carl Sagan, Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, New York: Random House, 1978, p.11.

  4. Ibid., p.64.

  5. Ibid., p.68.

  6. A second, identical Golden Record was placed on-board the Voyager 2, also launched in 1977.

  7. C. Sagan, Murmurs of Earth, op. cit., p.23.

  8. Keay Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000, p.305.

  9. C. Sagan, Murmurs of Earth, op. cit., p.162.

  10. Ibid., p.204

  11. Ibid., p.147.

  12. Ibid., p.150

  13. Ibid., pp.154—60.

  14. Ibid., p.77.

  15. Ibid., pp.75—76.

  16. Ibid., p.76.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid., p.66. More recently, Stephen Hawking has reiterated this concern, dubbing such attempts at alien contact ‘a little too risky… If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans.’ Anonymous, ‘Stephen Hawking: Alien Life Is Out There, Scientist Warns’, The Daily Telegraph, 25 April 2010, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/7631252/Stephen-Hawking-alien-life-is-out-there-scientist-warns.html (last accessed on 30 November 2012).

  19. K. Davidson, Carl Sagan, op. cit., p.306.

  20. Ibid., p.243.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.256.

  23. Connie Samaras, ‘Is It Tomorrow or Just the End of Time?’, in Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert (ed.), Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, p.208. 

  24. Stephanie Nelson and Larry Polanski, ‘The Music of the Voyager Interstellar Record’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol.21, no.4, November 1993, p.361.

  25. Ibid., pp.368—69.

  26. C. Sagan, Murmurs of Earth, op. cit., p.77.

  27. K. Davidson, Carl Sagan, op. cit., p.309.

  28. C. Sagan, Murmurs of Earth, op. cit., p.40.

  29. See ‘Sending Google into Space to Search for Alien Life’ [video footage], http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYd8QiJTi6s (last accessed on 27 November 2012); Seth Shostak also makes this suggestion in his book Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2009, p.242.

  30. Minsky does, however, give one caveat: ‘if those aliens have evolved so far beyond us that their concerns are unintelligible to us … then communication might not be feasible’. In fact Minsky specifies that his thesis applies ‘only to those stages of mental evolution in which beings are still concerned with surviving, communicating and expanding their control over the physical world’. Marvin Minsky, ‘Why Intelligent Aliens Will Be Intelligible’, in Edward Regis (ed.), Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp.117—28.

  31. Rafael Núñez, ‘Talking Mathematics to Aliens? (Get Real!… Or Have Fun with Anthropomorphism 101)’, in Trevor Paglen (ed.), The Last Pictures, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, p.182.

  32. Katherine Harmon, ‘Octopuses Gain Consciousness (According to Scientists’ Declaration)’, Scientific American: Blogs, 21 August 2012, available at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/octopus-chronicles/2012/08/21/octopuses-gain-consciousness-according-to-scientists-declaration/ (last accessed on 3 December 2012).

  33. See the ‘Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’, from the Francis Crick Memorial Conference 2012: Consciousnesss in Animals, 7 July 2012, http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf (last accessed on 3 December 2012).