As you read this, a metallic mass just a smidge smaller than my Subaru Forester hurdles through outer space at 11.947 kilometers per second. That’s 7.426 miles per second—or, to use a different set of imperial units, 12.313 Oregon Trails per hour.
Cost-effective, rugged, utile: Pioneer 10, the object in question, would certainly pass with Subaru-esque flying colors were NASA to launch a cosmic counterpart to Kelly Blue Book. The spacecraft was the first human-made object to pass through the Asteroid Belt, take close-up images of Jupiter and its satellites, and then leave our solar system. It finally went silent in 2003 after its eight-watt radio transmitter went kaput 30 years and 7.6 billion miles post-launch; the vessel far, far outlived its expected 21-month warranty.
Dr. Larry Lasher, the space probe’s project manager at the time of its final phone home, channeled his inner Roger Ebert to laud the mission as nothing less than a budgetary, empirical triumph. “Fantastic, unbelievable” was how he judged the initiative’s accomplishments in an early-aughts Q&A with NPR. “They certainly don’t make them like they used to,” his interviewer concurred. The craft cost much less than subsequent billion-dollar NASA missions. “Just a few hundred million bucks,” the NPR host said.
Pioneer 10 is not merely a time capsule for NASA’s golden age. Somewhere amidst star- and navel-gazing did the mission’s team eureka! at the existential significance of their undertaking: The Sun will eventually morph into a red giant and swallow Earth whole. With evidence of human civilization thus incinerated, Pioneer 10 will become the oldest human-made object in the universe.
Driven by the implication of what novelist Amit Chaudhuri calls “a realization, not a premonition” that we all will die, and with just weeks before Pioneer 10’s scheduled blastoff, the project’s team embarked on an ad hoc effort starring the Francis Bacon of outer space: Carl Sagan. They tried to transmute a nine-foot space walkie-talkie into an artifact for the outer reaches. To aliens, a revelation of the spacecraft’s grubby, human origins.
The final result of the team’s symbolic initiative, the Pioneer Plaque, is a gold-anodized aluminum sheet containing six sets of pictorial etchings. Engineers affixed the plaque’s doodly side to the probe’s innards in an effort to prevent erosion by space dust, ensuring that the relic can long outlast us. (A duplicate was similarly cocooned within Pioneer 10’s successor, the inspiringly christened Pioneer 11.)
Sagan and his associates Frank Drake and Linda Salzman Sagan hoped the imagery would effectively communicate “when we are, who we are, and where we are” to any technologically advanced society: that we, humans, living in an enclave called the Solar System, launched this space dinghy in 1972 (Earth years). An array of pulsars, a sketch of our solar system, a man-woman couple, and an outline of Pioneer 10 are meant to communicate as much.
But listening to Lasher decode the plaques’ visuals suggests it takes some galaxy-brain thinking—if not a tin-foil hat—to translate the Pioneer Plaques into a straightforward message. Here’s how to intuit the height of just one human figure:
There’s a figure of a man and a woman which is shown to scale next to a line silhouette of the spacecraft. And to give it some sizing, we have some bracketing bars to the right of that representation, and it’s in binary because any sentient being who ever finds it sometime in the future, millions or billions of years from now perhaps, perhaps they would know the language of mathematics, we feel. So it’s a binary system, 1000, which represents the number eight, and that was the height of the figures. And you say, ‘Well, OK, now what is one?’ So we have a radiation wavelength which is very characteristic throughout the universe of 21 centimeters. And so that represented one. So, therefore, you know, you translate that and you get the woman was about 5’6″.
Ah, yes, but of course.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pioneer 10 was mere miles into its orbital egress when the fallout commenced. A deluge of critique directed not as much toward the plaque’s esotericism as it was toward its human figurine whatthefuckery: Though the man-woman dyad was originally prototyped with a grab bag of racial features ostensibly “representative of all of mankind,” Sagan later admitted that “somewhere in the transcription from the original sketch drawing to the final engraving the Afro was transmuted into a very non-African Mediterranean-curly haircut.” By treating interracial suturing or whiteness as the sole acceptable forms of racial representation, the plaques—and their designers—posited that nobody but white people could be depicted in full as representatives of humanity. In other words, NASA sent white supremacist postcards into space.
There’s also gendernormative trouble. Man: the more diplomatic and affable of the two (hmm), his arm outstretched as a “gesture of goodwill,” his genitalia hanging out like it’s nbd. Woman: the sidekick to our Hellenistic hunk in a birthday suit, her vulva erased in the plaques’ final version to foreclose alien dismissals of the etching as prurient or smutty or uxorious. In an expedited quest to craft a perfect cultural emissary, the plaques’ inventors encoded the very injustices they sought to gloss over. (Silence is deafening in zero-gravity environments too, I guess.)
The plaques are, in that sense, a kind of scripture.
Snapshots of anything are by definition inadequate representations of (hopefully) deeper thoughts. The Pioneer Plaques may echo Biblical verse in this regard: Both are abridged attempts to express the breadth and depth of our reality. I say this as scraps of poetry written thousands of years ago continue to shape almost every strand of the U.S. sociopolitical fabric.
In Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, scholar of religion David M. Carr submits that, at least in part, Abrahamic scriptures have survived to the present day because of the deeper human experiences they contain. Carr focuses on the Old Testament; unlike the auto-lionizing of other mythologies from the same era (all bark, no bite), the Old Testament speaks of brokenness, of a God who brings suffering onto God’s people but guides them through it. “The scriptures of Judaism and Christianity offer pictures of a God who is still present when life shatters to pieces,” he writes. “Life can shatter us into pieces. That, I suggest, is a big reason why we still have the Jewish and Christian Bibles with us now.” Carr later moves beyond an exclusionary “Judeo-Christian” lens to reach a similar conclusion for other Abrahamic religions like Islam.
Those behind the Pioneer Plaques can deny their own religiosity and the scriptural dynamics of their task. Cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez, however, likens the imaginative activity informing the plaques’ design to religious practice. “Very much like angels, phantoms, or Donald Duck, aliens, as we know them, are the product of human imagination.” In more ways than not, this framing hints, Sagan and company envisioned their etching as an intergalactic Dead Sea Scroll, a gilded unearthing for creatures living a bajillion parsecs away.
Yet the plaques’ real audience was right here on Earth all along. “Because the figure of the alien is also someone we imagine or expect to encounter at a time that has not yet come, it is interwoven with our expectations and imaginations of the future itself,” chimes in artist and geographer Trevor Paglen. “If this is the case, then the decision about whether or not to include grand messages or gifts on space probes carries the symbolic significance of our own relationship to the possibility of a future.” With the transitory nature of our planet and species as the impetus for their scriptural undertaking, the plaques’ designers may have harbored a deeper objective: to inaugurate a new era in which human beings transcended adversity through rationality, sanctifying science as our holy unifier and salvation.
Carr admits that the same holy texts carrying us through the depths of despair can be wielded to destroy others in the name of God: from Crusades, to colonialism, to white Christian nationalism. And this raises some questions: At what point do we abandon our scripture and attempt to retain its truths in a less thorny medium? Does the Bible have any place in a mission to “come in peace,” whether within the Earth’s atmosphere or without? Do the Pioneer Plaques?
Even Sagan et. al. had second thoughts. With a longer runway before liftoff, and in seeming recognition of the white supremacy that made their first plaque racist and offensive, the Pioneer Plaque trinity, along with a larger team, strove to make a new testament. A less enigmatic one at that.
They attached their sophomore scripture, the “Golden Records,” twelve-inch LPs containing sounds and images, to spacecraft Voyagers 1 and 2. The records were an apparition of whiteness as well. Photos and recordings of prominent white figures like Jane Goodall were filed alongside generic portraits of “Andean girls.” The team also tried to erase all evidence of religion, which they dismissed as “purely subjective, superficial, and parochial expressions of human culture.” Their diplomatic excuse: “There are so many human religions that if we had shown any, we felt we would have to give equal time to all.” Unfailingly cocky, the records’ designers overlooked the religiosity of their own project, possessed by a colonialist, Protestantized construction that confines “religion” to “formal” places of worship and “exotic” rituals.
Related white-settler mythologies further molded their worldview. “In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land,” writes Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. “That part of the origin story is supported and reinforced by the Columbus myth and the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ [in which] European nations acquired title to the lands they ‘discovered’ and the Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land.” The team, fixated on futurity and refusing to reckon with the past or present, preordained their space relics to a Columbian flightpath—white discoverers (or an etched likeness) at the helm, full steam ahead toward their Manifest Destination.
Thomas Jefferson surely would have approved of the scientists’ farsightedness, as he too thought it “impossible not to look forward to distant times”; such posturing, argues Dunbar-Ortiz, glorifies “the settler-state’s intentions for horizontal and vertical continental expansion.” Today, the U.S. has a goddamn Space Force in addition to 800 military bases worldwide that, journalist Sarah Lazare notes, are “self-fulfilling ecosystems of conquest” in the midst of forever wars. American expansion is not just horizontal and vertical: it’s on a z-axis through the (supposed) nothingness of outer space. The terra nullius mentality is equal parts geo- and astro-; “pioneers” are Oregon Trail types as well as NASA probes bearing eugenic plaques; and “discovery,” Janus-faced, is “one giant leap for mankind” followed by an American flag speared into the Moon’s crust.
But life (ultimately) imitates art imitates religion. Intergalactic messages faced a great awakening. The bewildering breadth of humanity, including our religiosity, now finds its way in more grassroots interplanetary chats. But a year after Pioneer 10 left Earth did Sagan’s colleague Frank Drake, with some help from Sagan himself, broadcast a radio message from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. (Arecibo’s iconic thousand-foot telescope array collapsed in December 2020 after fifteen years of underfunding: a gigantic, crucible-like symbol of Puerto Rico’s various afflictions under U.S. imperialism.) Outliving their colonized point of origin, the bits of Drake’s ET-mail travel via radio wave far faster than Pioneer 10 does through microgravity, meaning aliens may discover Drake’s radio program before they do NASA’s artwork. Sagan’s gilded plaques and mixtapes may have to settle for a silver medal, if not irrelevance.
Following Drake, other humans have broadcast reams of dispatches to nearby pockets of our galaxy, using the infinity and economy of radio to distribute far less hieroglyphic communiqués than the plaques and records. Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev, for instance, sent “A message from Earth” to the star Gliese 581 in 2009, crowdsourcing his encyclical via the now-defunct social media site Bebo. Others, like astronomer Seth Shostak, think that the more redundant gabbing we share with aliens, the better. Doing so provides extraterrestrial cryptographers (or whatever they’re called) a larger, more decipherable sample. Shostak reckons we should share Google servers’ worth of babble into space—including pornography, which “they could handle.”
Whether scripture or mere kitsch, the Pioneer Plaques were a Genesis. Our coming space litanies may, to NPR’s surprise, be more cost-efficient and less gold-plated than NASA’s initial efforts. Whatever the ambition or penny-pinching behind our incantations, however, we’ve ignored the implications of these “disruptive” missions at our own peril. We’ve hit send. Now what?
Nothing but faith tells us that aliens will come in peace. “I dislike seeing my children’s destiny being gambled with by a couple of dozen arrogant people who cling to one image of the alien,” said one astrophysicist in fear of what colonizers in STEM hath wrought. We’re woefully unprepared for a read receipt, let alone the Pentecost or Apocalypse that follows.
Adam Willems (@functionaladam) is a Seattle-based freelance writer and reporter. They write Divine Innovation, a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology.