I spent a little time earlier this summer in Washington D.C.. It was a quick trip, I was visiting with a few friends. We caught a couple baseball games, and spent some time with Melissa's Mom and step-father. I attempt to spend a little time on the national mall with each visit.
There are sights that are necessary to see, and there are personal favorites. I try to visit the war memorials, to renew that feeling of what it means to recognize sacrifice lest we repeat the pain of the past. I also try to visit to Hirshorn museum, to keep the flames of a long love burning. I typically visit the Air and Space Museum.
Air and Space ignited a passion in me upon my first visit at the age of twelve, shaping my notions about the possible and starting me on the path to my professional career. Each time I visit I discover something new, this summer was no different. I found myself gravitating towards the planetarium, where I came across a replica of the Voyager interstellar probes.
The Voyager probes were launched in late August, 1977, shortly after my older brother was born, and at about the same time that my family made their pilgrimage west, moving from Brooklyn to the unknown. In a very real sense, the launch of the Voyager probes mirrored their own journey into the great wide open. Each journey, whether it be to a new place to start a new life, or to the edge of the known solar system, carries the promise of new discovery and the potential to remake our personal worlds.
Voyager occurred during a time when we were still excited about space and science, when we were looking for new frontiers. There was a genuine curiosity about the universe, and our place in it. The glory of Apollo had not yet faded. The conspiratorial voices of ignorance, intent on claiming 'fake news' about anything that they couldn't take credit for, had not yet reached a crescendo. Before dog whistles about alien invasions and foreign powers had been blown. In short, during a time when there was optimism about our future as a species.
The team that built and launched the Voyager probes included a gold record and rudimentary phonogragh with each craft. An audio greeting card from Earth, complete with an invitation to come say hello, with a map on how to find us. The record included the sounds of life. It contained the sounds of wind and rain, thunder and birds. There were messages spoken in 55 languages, both ancient and modern. It included whale songs and Morse code. Birdsong and ancient folk music. Rock and roll and classical. Among the many recordings are two that have haunted me since I first heard them, serving as bookends to the universal human emotional experience.
The first is a recording of Blind Willie Johnson called "Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground". Blind Willie was born in 1897 to a sharecropper. His mother died when he was four. His father later remarried. Blind Willie was not born blind, at the age of eleven he confronted his step-mother about her infidelities. She responded by throwing lye in his face, permanently blinding him.
Blind Willie took up singing gospels on street corners, asking for spare change, in order to survive. Over time he developed a following and a reputation as a talented evangelist. In 1927 he recorded Dark was the Night, but did not receive more than a local following for his talents. The Great Depression wiped out most of this.
He continued to struggle through the late 1930s and early '40s, until, Iin 1945, living in Beaumont, TX, his home burned to the ground. With no where else to turn, he continued to live in the charred remains of his house, where, exposed to the elements, he contracted malaria. He died in his sleep, using newspapers for blankets, in the wreckage of his former home that fall; and today, a song he performed in 1927 presenting the depths of sorrow laid bare, is hurtling through space, at the edge of our solar system at 38,610 mph.
The night that we lost Melissa was the darkest and longest of my life. The experiences of that day will haunt me for the rest of my life. The loneliness and bewilderment are indescribable. Looking into the chasm of despair, I did not think there would be a way out. How Dark was the Night captures a tiny amount of that, it is a distillation of a world in darkness.
The decision to include it on the Voyager record is a testament to the forethought put into the recordings that were included. The piece does not contain any lyrics, only the vague musicality of Johnson's hum-singing. Lyrics can change meaning with time, languages flourish and die out. Had the piece to included lyrics, they would likely hold vastly different meanings in a hundred years, let alone several million, presented to an alien race. Despite the lack of lyrics the sound of Johnson's experience translates universally. As one YouTube comment put it, "hello aliens, this is what we call loneliness".
At the other end of the spectrum is a remarkable recording of Ann Druyan. Ann worked on the Voyager Gold Record, responsible in part for deciding what recordings should be included. She collaborated closely with Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer perhaps best remembered as the host of Cosmos. Ann and Carl had worked together for several years prior to the Voyager probes, but it was during the Voyager project that they fell in love. In an interview with the NPR program Radiolab she explained the moment when she knew she loved Carl.
They had been working on the Voyager record, trying to determine what music should be included to represent Chinese culture. During a late evening phone call Carl abruptly proposed to her and she said emphatically yes. Prior to this point they had a mutual and professional respect and friendship, with neither expressing a romantic interest. The record project had brought them closer together, and Carl had decided right then and there than Ann was the one for her. Just like that, a bolt of electricity out of the blue. The feeling was mutual, as Ann realized a depth of love for Carl during that momentous phone call.
Over the next few days Ann proceeded with gathering recordings for Voyager. Early on, a decision had been made to try to capture all of the sounds of the human body, at once. The idea was that a future civilization may be able to take that recorded audio data and reconstruct the thoughts, emotions, functions, and nature of being human as sort of digital fingerprint. A way to express feeling across time and species. Perhaps to bring that human back to life, if for a brief moment, to be an ambassador for our civilizations. It had been decided that the Ann would be the recorded test subject.
So it came to pass that, two days after Ann and Carl fell in love, the electrical impulses of all of her thoughts and feelings, the sound of her heart falling in love, were recorded for posterity, to last a billion years, and launched into outer-space.
Carl Sagan passed away in 1996, and yet the feeling of that moment lives on. The voice of their love, as well as Blind Willie's voice of sorrow, will outlive all of us, outlive our planet, next to be heard by an alien race as yet unknown.
In several million years, if and when the Voyager probes are discovered, the listeners may be able to take these twin recordings and get a brief picture of what it means to be alive. Of what it means to be at our peak and what it means to be at our lowest point, and hopefully what it means to persevere. What it means to get back up and carry on, to make sure the voice of our love and loss and love again despite loss carries on across time and space.