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This essay is the winner of the 2022 KYD School Writing Prize—read the judges’ report from Rawah Arja and Alan Vaarwerk. 

the voyager golden record - a golden disc with various symbols and diagrams etched onto its surface.

Voyager Golden Record. Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Since humans have had cognitive thought, we have looked to the stars. From ancient Aboriginal rock carvings and sacred sites to Bronze Age artefacts such as the Nebra Sky Disc, it’s clear that humans have been fascinated with the cosmos long before we had any concrete proof of what was beyond our atmosphere. Aboriginal Australian Dreaming stories often spoke of subjects such as Earth’s creation, and evidence suggests they may have been some of the earliest examples of this cosmic idea, as astronomical sites such as the Wurdi Youang site date back further than even Stonehenge. The Indigenous peoples of Australia have long had a spiritual connection with the sky and cosmos that dictated ceremonies, creation theories and their movements as nomads. Early man had linked celestial bodies with the natural earth, tides, seasons and weather, so observing the sky became imperative to developing the modern resource-gathering practices we have today. But space and its movements were not only essential to farming and agriculture, but also to philosophy, religion, and divinity, as ancient cultures’ yearning for the beyond was honoured through their gods and monuments. These ancient people were not limited by their lack of understanding of the universe, but rather inspired by quite simply what they could observe with the naked, human eye.

Naturally, along with the curiosity of what was out there, came the question of who. For hundreds of thousands of years, people have looked to the sky and questioned such things. We ask: ‘Is there anyone out there?’ We ask: ‘What happens if there isn’t?’. Theories have long been circulating that perhaps aliens had come to Earth in prehistoric times, their contact allowing and assisting us to advance as a society to where we are today. Maybe these ironically-named gods we worship are themselves dwellers of the Milky Way, but their image has been warped through the interpretations of early extraterrestrial interaction. Are aliens malicious, or do they want to ally with Earth? Society has thought of endless justifications to avoid the possibility of being simply alone out here, because that thought is too worrying to even comprehend.

For hundreds of thousands of years, people have looked to the sky. We ask: ‘Is there anyone out there?’ We ask: ‘What happens if there isn’t?’.

Now, though, humans have realised we will not last. Not only in the inevitable, ‘the Sun will one day get much too close and you will not want to be here the day that it does’, kind of way, but in the way that we won’t allow ourselves to. Of nobody’s fault but our own, the planet is teetering on the verge of collapse, and we are too busy in battle with each other to fix it. Though our beloved outer space may one day be our executioner, at the rate humans are going, it won’t even get a chance to be. At this realisation, we decided as a species that although we may never meet our planetary neighbours, we must give them an opportunity to know us.

And so, our robots were sent out into the unknown. These metal wanderers were given names and goals and told to explore, and they will continue long after we are gone. Curiosity and Perseverance and Spirit and Opportunity will lie in the dirt and wait patiently, perhaps for a day that will never come, one where they are found. They can tell those extraterrestrials their names, and how humans must have valued these words. We didn’t just send our message close to home though. The Voyager Golden Record will reach stars more than 17 light years away in about 40,000 years. This ‘message in a bottle’ of sorts that’s been sent into the vast ocean of space can only be viewed if there is intelligent life out there, and it says something very thoughtful about our nature.

Launched in 1977 and attached as two copies to probes Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, the phonograph record is a depiction of humanity at the time. Complete with instructions on how to play it intended to be interpreted by anyone who may come across it, it contains sounds of the natural world such as whales and birds, as well as the voices of humans, including a message from both the UN Secretary-General and his six-year-old son. There are footsteps, there is laughter, there is a greeting in 55 different languages. It has our music, classical works of Beethoven and Bach, modern rock from Chuck Berry and cultural music from across the globe. Not to mention the photos, a mixture of scientific diagrams and photographs of people from all over the world. We wanted to show the universe who we are, how we act and interact, how we communicate, how we live. We wanted to prove to those around us that we mattered, as insignificant as maybe a clip of a pop song may be. The record contained the brain waves of the creator’s future wife while she was thinking of our most human concepts, of love and war and history and society. A basic need of humans is to be known. It’s linked with our desire to live forever, to find purpose in what we do, and have any of our trivial activities mean something. In terms of time, we are but a blink in the eye of the universe, apparently unnoticed by anyone other than ourselves, and this is something we often struggle to cope with. So how can our persistence of life be maintained? Well, we do have the power to replicate our genes through reproduction and offspring, but that is not the only way. It is our work that really allows us to become immortal, what we leave the world with as evidence that we once walked it. It is awe-inspiring to see the handprints and cave drawings of the past, and to wonder what kind of lives those people may have lived, and how it is unlikely to be much different to our own. We admire great works at least in part for their permanence–how is it possible for someone to create something that can last so long?

We wanted to show the universe who we are, how we act and interact, how we communicate, how we live. We wanted to prove to those around us that we mattered, as insignificant as maybe a clip of a pop song may be.

Despite it all, we keep living. It’s ironic, we are fully aware that we won’t outlive anything in the scheme of things, despite how much we may try. Perhaps that’s what it’s all about, despite everything in our universe being transient, we still say hello to those who will come after us.

The inscription inlaid on the Voyager Golden Record reads ‘To the makers of music—all worlds, all times’, and it contains the Latin phrase ‘Per Aspera Ad Astra’, meaning ‘Through hardships to the stars’. We have always and will always dream of the things bigger than ourselves, and that last long after we’re gone. That’s why we made our robots. That’s why we go to space.