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  • 05.17.17

45 Years Ago, NASA Launched An Infographic For Aliens Into Space

How do you explain life on Earth without using human language? With graphic design, of course.

In 1972, a journalist named Eric Burgess was touring an aerospace company with a group of fellow science correspondents when he had an unprecedented thought. The group had just gotten a glimpse of the Pioneer 10, the spacecraft poised to become the first to leave our solar system, weeks before its interstellar journey. If there’s a chance the probe will meet extraterrestrial life, Burgess thought, it should carry a missive from all of mankind–some sort of greeting that would also convey the message of life on Earth to intelligent life outside of it.

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Burgess knew that he would never be able to convince NASA of the idea. But he did know someone who could: Carl Sagan, then the director of the laboratory of planetary studies at Cornell University. In turn, Sagan recruited the designer Frank Drake and his first wife, the artist and writer Linda Salzman Sagan, and the group pitched the idea to NASA, promising to get their message done in time for the launch of Pioneer 10 and its counterpart Pioneer 11. In two weeks, the team had to boil all of humanity down into a simple line drawing, engrave it onto a set of identical golden plaques, and bolt them to NASA’s two Pioneer spacecraft. The so-called “Pioneer plaques” rocketed into space and beyond our solar system in 1973.

Now, one enthusiast is crowdfunding a series of replicas–and rekindling interest in this completely unique piece of information design.

“I’ve always loved the meaning behind those plaques–that it was this greeting card from Earth in simple line art, a message in a bottle thrown into the stars,” says Portland-based graphic designer Duane King. King has been obsessed with the Pioneer plaques since seeing Sagan talk about them on Cosmos as a kid in the 1970s. He even bought up the “Pioneer10” domain name 17 years ago. Over the last seven months, he’s been working on producing exact replicas of the Pioneer plaque–which can today be ordered on Kickstarter.

For King, the project is fascinating for both its unimaginably expansive scope and its incredible specificity as a piece of information design. It’s meant to explain humanity to the rest of the universe in a visual and mathematical language that anyone, or anything, can decipher using only the drawing.

Recreating the plaque started out as a personal project. NASA’s archives of the original master templates for the plaque are public domain, and they include every bit of useful information: the materials used, the exact dimensions of the design, the depth of the engraving, the thickness of the plaque. There are photos of the plaques online, yet the replica that exists on Earth is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

“There was something kind of magical to think there is one 14 billion kilometers from Earth in one direction and one 14 billion kilometers from Earth in the other, one in the Smithsonian, and one on my couch,” says King.

[Photo: courtesy Duane King]
King’s recreations are painstakingly researched. After watching a documentary on the plaques, King realized that the engraver, Ponciano Barbosa, was still alive–so he Googled him. On Google Street View, King could see in the window of Barbosa’s trophy shop and a little sign that read, “Home of the Pioneer Plaque.” After reaching out to him, King learned that the engraver had made samples of the plaque that were still in his shop. Together, they produced an exact replica of the Pioneer plaque, engraved into a plaque made of the same gold-anodized aluminum as the originals. King saw an opportunity in the replica–a piece of space travel history slender enough to fit into an envelope and ship to likeminded space geeks willing to pay for it.

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But as a graphic designer, he also understood just how impressive the plaque was as a piece of information design. As far as design briefs go, this was a difficult one: How do you communicate with beings that might not understand your language, or even have a language–or even eyes for that matter? The “user” in this scenario might not have the same numeric system, or understand units of measure. Without being able to use the common devices for communication, the team had to start completely from scratch.

The plaque’s drawings distill Earth’s history, all of humanity, and an explanation of the spacecraft itself down to seven illustrations (drawn by Salzman Sagan): our solar system; Pioneer’s trajectory; Pioneer’s silhouette; the figures of a man and a woman; the relative position of the sun to the center of the galaxy; and a diagram of the hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen, the most abundant element in our universe.

[Photo: courtesy Duane King]
The illustration of hydrogen, which sits on the top left of the plaque, can be used as a covert “yardstick” for the rest of the diagram. It provides a basic unit of both time and physical length throughout the physical universe. A vertical line represents the binary digit 1, which specifies a unit of length (21 centimeters) as well as a unit of time (0.7 newton seconds). The binary digit can be used elsewhere in the design to determine the measurement of objects or how far the spacecraft traveled.

For example, viewers can calculate the height of the human figures drawn further down the plaque. On the left side of the plaque, a pulsar map shows 14 lines with corresponding long binary numbers, which stand for the periods of pulsars if read with the units represented by the hydrogen diagram. Since these periods will change over time, the time period of the launch can be calculated from these values, showing how long the spacecraft has been traveling.

By any measure, Drake and Sagan’s coded design is an ingenious way of fitting a lot of information into a very small amount of space. But how effective is it as a piece of information design if your average human would struggle to figure it out? Do aliens know binary?

“As an infographic, the encoding inside of the drawing is fascinating and effective if not difficult,” King admits. “What I love is the idea that it represents the best of what makes us human–that constant seeking of what’s next on the horizon, and the hope and sense of wonder that makes us who we are. This abstract symbolism embodies that for me somehow.”

The plaque also led to an even better-known piece of alien information design: the Voyager golden records, launched in 1977. After the Pioneer plaques launched into outer space, they suffered some backlash–in the ’70s, the human figure drawings were regarded as interstellar pornography–but the next five years provided Sagan, Drake, and their team enough time to think more thoroughly about how and what they wanted to communicate. The phonograph records launched with Voyager 1 held both images and sounds, as well as an onboard phonograph, ready for any intelligent life the spacecraft encounters.

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They still included the pulsar map and the hydrogen molecule drawing, however, proof that the Pioneer plaque lives on–with both the Voyager 1 and the Pioneers. Those designs are now billions of miles away, but King’s replicas are bringing them back to Earth.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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