The Next Colonial Frontier: Space?

“Je sais les cieux crevant en éclairs, et les trombes / Et les ressacs et les courants : Je sais le soir, / L'aube exaltée ainsi qu'un peuple de colombes, / Et j'ai vu quelque fois ce que l'homme a cru voir !"
- Arthur Rimbaud, “Le Bateau Ivre” (1)

In 1977, two twin Voyager ships were launched towards uncharted regions of the universe. They were heralded by their architect Carl Sagan as “emissaries of Earth to the realm of the stars" (2). Bearing gold-plated vinyl records containing audio, images, and greetings from humanity, these ships were seen as the apotheosis of an idealistic Golden Age of space exploration that would, under the Reagan administration, give way to attempts to utilize outer space for military and strategic purposes. In the decade of the Strategic Defense Initiative, colloquially known as “Star Wars,”more tangible results were demanded from such an expensive program. The Voyager mission, since its inception, has cost 998 million dollars and has mapped Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (3). Though both perspectives on the relative benefits of space travel emerged in the context of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, one emphasized reconciliation and shared humanity through symbolic scientific contest while the other sought tactical advantage.

Environmental historian Stephen Pyne observed that “discovery nests within a narrative of Western imperialism,” (4) by which he meant that attempts to find and classify alien space have always implied a claim to possession of that space. The history of European exploration is also one of European empire; the two are inextricably linked. When Columbus arrived at new islands, he always gave them a new name from his own cultural tradition, even though they presumably already had native names. “I named this island Santa Maria de la Concepción,” (5) he wrote in his log-book during his first revelatory voyage, and thus the process began by which the Caribbean was eventually domesticated and Catholicized. By erasing native names, he erased native ownership. The 35 new moons discovered by Voyager 1 and 2 were treated similarly, but in this instance their nomenclature came from a variety of customs, including Yoruba tales, Slavic mythology, stories of the North American Indians, and the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, among others (6).

Maps and stellar geography play as important a role in the Voyager program as they did in early explorations of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Included on each ship were images of the earth's surface, pictorial representations of the movement of tectonic plates from Pangea to the current configuration, a photograph of children playing with a model globe, and a reproduced page from Isaac Newton's System of the World. Sagan describes the page as “the first step on the path that led to Voyager" (7). He envisions a grand process, the rise of science in the Western tradition, that has led to him. His caption next to the photograph of the children asks whether potential extraterrestrial discoverers of the probe will notice the lines that divide modern states, “boundaries that are concepts, not real markings on the planet" (8). Voyager 1 and 2, transcending Earthly difference, are meant to emphasize the interconnectedness of all human cultures, opposed to the entirely other hypothetical extraterrestrial.

At other times, Sagan and the other minds behind the representation of Earth included on both ships seemed less convinced of the equality of all societies. The process of selecting what music and greetings would be included onboard involved consultation with experts in the fields of ethnomusicology, anthropology, and linguistics, including folklorist Alan Lomax. The opinions of these few specialists are made authoritative and unquestionable, by their experience. Sagan writes that “after many decades of work, Lomax believes that different stages in the social, economic, and technological development of civilization are characteristically reflected by certain styles of music”(9). Lomax was instrumental in the task of determining which songs merited being contained on a record that could only hold 90 minutes of music, in addition to greetings and recorded sounds from Earth, and his attitude is visible in the final list (10). An attempt was made to include samples of music from civilizations at different point in their development, from the pygmies, who Sagan quotes anthropologist Colin Turnbull to declare “among the most primitive in the world” (11) to Bach, described as a “nearly universal composer” (12).

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

This formulation seems a relic of earlier civilizational anthropology. Lomax's conclusion echoes E. B. Tylor's assertion in Primitive Culture that “transformed, shifted, or mutilated, such elements of art still carry their history plainly stamped upon them” (13) Bach, in the three compositions of his included on the record, must therefore demonstrate the maturity and heights of the tradition in which he works with the benefits of European knowledge. Similarly, the Pygmy Girls' initiation song reveals the youthfulness of their culture. Though Turnbull, who recorded the song, romanticizes the simplicity and friendliness of the pygmies, writing that “as civilization has progressed, our problems have become so complex that we can't afford the human considerations that to the Mbuti are foremost,” (14) it remains paternalistic, revealing Turnbull's (as well as Sagan's) belief in a noble, exoticized savage who fails to understand the extent to which he or she has been lucky to live simply.

The Mbuti are not the only people made exotic by their inclusion on the record, punctuating the work of Western composers to emphasize their difference. But, the very purpose of the record reveals a desire to encounter a new, radical other in an age when most all of the peoples on earth had already been discovered by the new science of anthropology. Life in each of these societies had been documented in great detail by an army of anthropologists, each “with his notebooks and camera” (15). The complications of the vanishing native, increasing accuracy in mapmaking and the lack of any truly unexplored new lands, save the ocean floor which posed certain technical problems, meant that science required a new external symbol that could unite its displaced ideals. Sagan, ever the optimist, settled on extraterrestrial life. He hoped that through the Voyager mission “we might be able to communicate with representatives of such exotic civilizations” (16). He determined it likely that other planets have also seen “the emergence of a technological civilization” (17) like our own, and makes contact with these cultures a second goal of the twin spacecraft, along with the collection of data. He tamed the radical differences between Earth and such a planet, assuming that if there is extraterrestrial life its form resembles our own. This planet is, like Mars in Roland Barthes' essay “Martians,” “endowed with a historical determinism modeled on that of Earth... being only an Earth of dreams” (18). The Voyager program mapped bourgeois American notions of the innate condition of being alive onto the endless expanse of the cosmos, carrying cultural assumptions and principles farther than they have ever travelled. The choice of what music would represent the planet was complicated by bureaucratic procedure and copyright law, that prevented some songs, such as “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles, from being included (19). An insistence on enforcing the law of one distant country in a territory without any regulations typified the conquest of the New World, leading to such legalistic absurdities as claiming already-inhabited territory with the monarch's image on a coin.

The golden record meant to be a symbol of international cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union was delayed when the Soviets spent weeks debating what song adequately represented their country. They eventually settled on “the blandest, least interesting, and also least interesting composition imaginable,” (20) which was replaced by a Georgian men's choir singing “Tchakrulo.” A statement by then-Secretary General of the United Nations Kurt Waldheim offered whoever found the record “only peace and friendship” (21). Diplomatic and economic relations were substituted for outright imperialism. Waldheim's speech complicated matters because an American ship could not, on a matter of principle, include a message from an international governing organization without a similar, and longer one, from President Jimmy Carter. In it, Carter asserts that the nation-states of planet Earth are rapidly becoming a single global civilization, under the auspices of the United Nations, and expresses his hope to someday “join a community of galactic civilizations,” (22) a fanciful thought that expresses the utopianism of his moment.

Paired with this desire to integrate alien civilizations with ours was a fear that it may be our own culture that is incorporated into another, becoming the colonized instead of the colonizer. Sir Martin Ryle, the Astronomer Royal of England, itself once a great colonial empire, argued against dispatching a message to the stars out of fear that to reveal our existence and location would invite invasion by extraterrestrial life forms who “might come to attack or eat us,” (23). His anxiety echoes Columbus' attitude towards the inhabitants of Quaris, “a people who are regarded in these islands as extremely fierce and who eat human flesh,” (24) demonstrating that both the positive and negative connotations of the depicted anthropological subject had been imposed onto the conjectured alien. The Voyager program is a plot point in numerous works of science fiction, including L. Ron. Hubbard's 1982 novel Battlefield Earth and the 1994 film Without Warning. In both works, aliens invade planet Earth after they intercept one of the Voyager probes, leading to enslavement at the hands of alien “Psychlos” and the extinction of most of the human race, respectively. However, science fiction was linked to the Voyager program from the beginning. Sagan consulted his friends, the writers Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein when it came time to decide what image would be engraved on the records (25).

The visual is critical to representing Earth through the Voyager. Initially, Sagan planned to carve the same drawing by his then-wife Linda Sagan on the record covering that was engraved on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, launched 3 years earlier in 1974 (26). But, the Pioneer plaque had caused controversy due to its depiction of a naked man and woman greeting the universe with a wave, eliciting angry letters to the editor of the Los Angeles Times “denouncing NASA for using taxpayers' money to send “smut” into space" (27). Positive public opinion of the new program demanded the selection of a different image, and so the couple were replaced with a collection of symbols.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

The upper left-hand corner features a pictorial representation of the record and included phonograph, with binary code indicating the time the record takes to rotate, expressed not in Earth's metric but as a multiple of .7 billionths of a second, the frequency with which a hydrogen atom, the simplest in the universe, vibrates. Also included are visual instructions for converting sound to the photographs encoded into the record, drawings of hydrogen atoms, and a pulsar map indicating the location of Earth's solar system (28). The significance of these symbols is in their universality, requiring their interpreter to bear no similarity to the human race except for the ability to see and to understand basic atomic theory.

In contrast to this great conceptual distance between the human race and other life forms is the cohesion it implies among people on Earth. Included in the pictures encoded onto the record are 25 images of the human life cycle, from DNA to the process of fertilization, pregnancy, birth, and integration into the family and social circles (29). Sagan, who was not permitted to include his wife's drawing of a nude man and woman on the cover of the record, attempted to use a similarly unclothed photo of a man and a pregnant woman, “neither sexist, pornographic, nor clinical,” (30) to show the human reproductive sequence, assuming that the woman's pregnancy desexualized the image. Once more, NASA refused to include the photograph, so it was rendered in silhouette form showing the developing embryo. Linda Sagan's original drawing from the Pioneer plaque is hidden in a diagram of vertebrate evolution later in the slideshow (31).

Besides a large number of scientific and geographical images, the Voyager record also includes many ethnographic field photographs of different societies around the globe, taken from the collections of the United Nations. The purpose is to show the variety of human experience, tied once more to the maturation of certain civilizations. A Greek fishing boat is “primitive in relation to the technology in some other pictures, showing various stages in our technological development" (32). In attempting to show the typical, given the limitations placed on the number of photos that could be included, the panel of experts led by Sagan wound up essentializing the cultures they wanted to preserve. Every image is universalized, including the “typical North American house,” (33) staged in contrast to a hut. From the representation of humanity placed in the Voyager ships, one would conclude that 1970s America constituted the zenith of the history of civilizations.

Unlike traditional explorer's ships, Voyager 1 and 2 are unmanned. They cannot conquer, only document and perhaps communicate. One might compare them to Arthur Rimbaud's “Bateau Ivre,” “the boat which says ‘I’ and, liberated from its concavity, can make mankind proceed from a pyschoanalysis of the cavern to a true poetics of exploration" (34). Following Roland Barthes' argument, the conquistador's ship prevented him from truly encountering the natives he found in the Americas, because the protections it offered led to a mental separation. His fleet was his defense and his obstacle, if he had possessed any desire to understand the peoples he conquered.

Here at least, the Voyager mission follows precedent: “almost all of the Great Voyages were fleets” (35). Though separated from each other, Voyager 1 and 2 still carry out the same project; they were launched 16 days apart (36). Each acts as an eye in the heavens, sending data back to Earth until they reach too great a distance from the sun and their batteries die. When, in 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space some 19 billion kilometers from the sun, it was the first manmade object to do so (37). The drifting Voyager ships, thrown, like Rimbaud's boat “par l'ouragan dans l'éther sans oiseau,” (38) characterize a new era of exploration. What individualizes them is their ability to communicate, even to disobey commands given. While still in our solar system, orders were transmitted “only to be refused on the grounds that they contradicted more fundamental instructions" (39). Indicated by this rebellion of programming is the decentralization of the human race at the heart of the universe, even as the Voyager mission is simultaneously an act of domination.

Credit: Voyager 1

Credit: Voyager 1

The iconic image of Earth as pale blue dot, photographed by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it departed our solar system, captures this paradox. Instructions to take the photograph were transmitted on the request of Carl Sagan, an act of control analogous to the creation of Amerigo Vespucci's maps of South America. But Sagan describes the planet in modest terms- “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”(40). Among the vastness of the stars, the Earth seems irrelevant to him. By turning the anthropological eye of Voyager 1 back onto its source, the photo displaces the human race and “the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe” (41). Though the impulse behind the Voyager project seems the continuation of years of exploration, many of the conclusions it has drawn reject the hubristic assumptions that characterized the Age of Discovery and the rise of colonial empires.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the symbol of the two gold-plated records. Gold drove the exploration of the Americas. When he encountered the native Caribbeans, Columbus “watched carefully to discover whether they had gold,” (42) desperately seeking it out in a perfect foreshadowing of what was to come. Profit motivated subjugation, and a series of conquistadors looted the continent. In 16th century Peru, gold extracted from the conquered Inca was loaded onto the Spanish fleet and brought to Europe twice a year. The gold that covers the two records onboard the twin Voyager ships has not been taken from a cosmic other, but dispatched as a gift in hopes that a reply will someday come and mark the beginning of a new bond. For that reason, their explorations are truly original.



  1. Arthur Rimbaud. Poésies complètes (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1998), 204.

  2. Carl Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. (New York: Random House, 1978)

  3. NASA. “NASA Spacecraft Embarks on Historic Journey Into Interstellar Space.” (accessed December 15, 2014).

  4. Stephen J Pyne. Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery (New York: Viking Penguin Group, 2010), 9.

  5. Christopher Columbus, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed. and trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), 60.

  6. Stephen J Pyne. Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery, 217, 221.

  7. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 110.

  8. Ibid., 72.

  9. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 16.

  10. Pyne, Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery, 348.

  11. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 175.

  12. Ibid., 168.

  13.  E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. 1 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1883), 17.

  14. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 175.

  15. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell (New York: Criterion Books, 1961), 270.

  16. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 5.

  17.  Ibid., 5.

  18. 18 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard and Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 39. 

  19. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 19.

  20. Ibid., 21.

  21. Ibid., 26.

  22. Ibid., 28

  23. Ibid., 66. 

  24. Columbus, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 121.

  25. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 11.

  26. Pyne, Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery, 348.

  27. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 57.

  28. Ibid., 37.

  29. Ibid., 79-80.

  30. Ibid., 72.

  31. Ibid., 100.

  32. Ibid., 111.

  33. Ibid., 111.

  34. Barthes, Mythologies, 88.

  35. Pyne, Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery, 58. 

  36. Sagan et al., Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 41.

  37. NASA. “NASA Spacecraft Embarks on Historic Journey Into Interstellar Space. (accessed December 15, 2014).

  38. Rimbaud. Poésies complètes, 206.

  39. Pyne, Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery, 63.

  40. Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot (New York:Ballantine Books, 1997), 12.

  41. Sagan. Pale Blue Dot, 13.

  42. Columbus, The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 77.


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard and Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 2012.

Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed. and trans. J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell. New York: Criterion Books, 1961. 

NASA. “NASA Spacecraft Embarks on Historic Journey Into Interstellar Space.” (accessed December 15, 2014).

Pyne, Stephen J. Voyager: Seeking newer worlds in the third great age of discovery. New York: Viking Penguin Group, 2010.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Poésies complètes. Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1998.

Sagan, Carl. Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. New York: Random House, 1997.

Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

Sagan, Carl, F.D. Drake, Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, Jon Lomberg, and Linda Salzman Sagan. Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record. New York: Random House, 1978.

Tylor, E.B. Primitive Culture, vol. 1. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1883.