In November 1971, journalist Eric Burgess was visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to see the initial pictures from Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit Mars. The pictures were disappointing as a huge dust storm was raging across the planet, but when Burgess was given the chance to have a look at JPL’s next interplanetary probe he had an idea.
Pioneer 10 was due to be launched the following year and its destination was Jupiter. It would take 21 months to reach the planet and, if everything went according to plan, would make a close pass over the surface. The huge gravitational field of the biggest planet in the solar system would then accelerate Pioneer 10. It would be travelling fast enough to escape the Sun’s gravitation and eventually travel out into interstellar space; becoming the first man-made object to leave the solar system.
Burgess’s idea was to include a message from humanity, just in case the probe was intercepted by an alien race as it travelled through deep space. Burgess mentioned this to Carl Sagan, the astronomer and cosmologist, who in turn put the suggestion to NASA. Very quickly a plan to add a small plaque to the spacecraft was agreed.
Sagan then teamed up with Frank Drake, the man who started the first ‘Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence’ (SETI) project, to decide what would appear on the plaque. The artwork was produced by Sagan’s wife, Linda Salzman Sagan.
The plaque included some very clever ways of showing an alien race where Pioneer 10 had originated, but the mainstream media became rather fixated on the pictures of a man and a woman that appeared on it.
Horror of horrors (to some newspapers at least) the two people were naked! Editors were not particularly concerned about what extra-terrestrials would make of the image; but did worry about offending their readership. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an image of the plaque on its front page – but only after carefully airbrushing out the man’s genitals and the woman’s nipples. The editor was quoted as saying ‘A family newspaper must uphold community standards.’ Many other newspapers took similar action.
Taking a slightly different approach, some feminists complained that while the man’s genitals were clear for all to see, those of the woman appeared to be non-existent. Depending on which accounts you believe, a small line to indicate the woman’s genitals was either removed at the request of NASA, or never included because Mr and Mrs Sagan thought NASA were certain to ask for its removal.
There was also discussion about why the man had one hand raised, whilst the woman had both of hers passively by her side. Didn’t this indicate that the man was dominant? Others thought the raised hand could be interpreted as an aggressive gesture. Carl Sagan had originally planned for the couple to be holding hands, but then realised that to an alien, this image might be seen as a single, four-legged, two-headed being. The main reason for the raised hand was to show the fingers and opposable thumb.
Another plan was to depict the two people as ‘pan-racial’ to represent all of humanity. However, somewhere between Linda Sagan’s drawing and the final engraving, the couple took on a more white caucasian appearance. Hair lost its shading, making it seem blond and the man acquired a side parting and wave in his hair, giving it a distinctly western look.
On a more academically sound note, it was pointed out by Scientific American that the arrowhead to show the path of the space probe was a symbol that would only have meaning to an alien race if they, like humans, had spent time living as hunter-gatherers.
Despite all the opinions expressed, the plaque was attached to Pioneer 10 and duly launched on its journey on March 2nd 1972. A sister probe Pioneer 11, fitted with an identical plaque, began its flight in April 1973. Pioneer 11 is now roughly 9 billion miles from Earth and heading towards the constellation Scutum.
Pioneer 10 is a billion miles further away from Earth and heading towards the star Aldebaran. It will take roughly two million years to get there. We just have to hope that any Aldebarans who find it are not offended by nudity.