Voyager 1 Redux by Michael Ellman

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member States who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet.

Kurt Waldheim, as transcribed in the Voyager’s Golden Record


The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is in holiday mode. Christmas is around the corner and I’m the evening monitor of the Voyager’s transmissions. Fifteen billion miles and 44 years from Earth, the Voyager 1 is past the heliosphere and magically able to sing to the JPL despite digital power that is 20 billion times weaker than my cell phone.

The transmission stops two days before Christmas.

Jake Smith is the first person in line for me to contact, my titular boss, less competent than many, but seniority and gender count even in science. “Jake, the Voyager is silent,” I say. “The DSN (Deep Space Network) stations are reporting nothing. The networks are online and intact. Even Canberra has reported in, and you know how the Australians are, especially around holidays.”

“Christ, Mar-T, there must be some blip. We received bursts from Voyager yesterday. I’ll be there in the morning. Wait until then before doing anything, let’s make sure it’s not some crazy technical aberration.”

“I’ll see you in the morning,” I say, understanding fully well that Jake will call a press conference, while I stand by his side, smiling insincerely, befitting the doofus assistant who was the first to detect the signal loss and by all rights should be in charge.

Four weeks later, just as after the death of an illustrious politician, we honor the Voyager’s 44 years of transmitting: the discovering and exploring the Jovian and Saturnian moons, finding the thin ring around Jupiter and a new ring around Saturn, and becoming the first human-made object venturing into inter-stellar space. It is a joyous national celebration befitting the accomplishments of the Voyager, but a sad time for the scientists and engineers and programmers who made the achievements possible.

We meet at the Greek’s Bar and Diner, next door to the JPL, for our private party. To get decent service at the Greek’s, it’s best to order in Spanish. The flirting and drinking mixed with our science one-upmanship lifts my mood and although Jake is not my type, reason slips into the heliosphere after a few pomegranate Mojitos. We are alike in so many ways. All of us are on the spectrum—math nerds, astronomy nerds, just plain nerds—the JPL is our home. Many of us have no other. Even the “normal” people here only pass for normal.

My phone buzzes. It’s Madrid. 

“Carlos, mi amigo, hola, qué pasa?” I ask. “It’s late here in California. What! You’re hearing what? Canberra also. Not possible—it’s been four weeks of absolute silence.”

“Jake, stop with your hands and order black coffee. Be quick. We need to get back to the JPL. The Voyager is talking!”

I’m in charge, Jake is woozy after too much white Bacardi rum, and Carlos is correct, the Voyager’s transmission booms loud. Our computers are spinning out question marks trying to decipher its noises.

Harry, from the radio-telescope headquarters, is on the Red Line Phone. “Mar-T, is that you? Something’s strange. Doppler pick-up from the Voyager transmission suggests the craft has turned around and is heading back. Is there something scheduled we haven’t been told about? Are we being attacked?”

“No, nothing about the return of the Voyager. Nothing,” I say.

I dislike committee meetings as much as anyone. But not this one. Voyager is returning to our solar system at speeds we can’t fathom. Doppler measurements don’t lie.

Since King Arthur’s time, people like to gather at round tables, but the circle doesn’t hide the hierarchy and the stylish chairs are uncomfortable. The politicians, and the military are in charge. The Secretary of Defense, Congressman Marks from the Science, Space and Technology Committee, and the Vice-President are all talking at once, and we, the JPL, adopt our shoulder-shrugging science jargon: “We don’t understand it either. Our software people are working on it. Thank you.”

I am chosen spokesperson to the media. Jake, per court decree, has his children on weekends, and the Voyager’s return is a seven-day-a-week job.

“Voyager is returning to Earth at unheard of speeds and scientists have no explanation.”

The headlines in every newspaper and every news station are from an anonymous source. I can offer the name. But in my way, I like Jake and we don’t out anyone at the JPL.

“Who am I talking with—oh it’s you Mar-T, I saw you on television. Neat!” Michael from Langley, Virginia, where the George Bush Center for Intelligence handles cryptoanalysis is speaking. “When we slow the radio frequency from the Voyager it speaks in a simple code. Kind of like fractured English, one dot for e, the most common letter in our alphabet, two dots for t, our next most common letter, three dots for a, etcetera. Someone must be reading the record inside the Voyager, you know, the Carl Sagan thing – the Golden Record compilation.”

Generall Walldheim see our energy shame on your pitiful power source and why such a complicatted attachment, too many soundss.

The Golden Record in the Voyager has 55 different languages, and we agree, too many sounds from too many sources (see attachment), but we won’t throw Carl Sagan under the bus.

Mom phones daily. Seeing me on national television has rewards. Neighbors call and relatives’ brag and mom revels in the attention. Dad, Lincoln’s leading internist, is a loving father, but remote to his only daughter. You can rough house and enjoy manly things with your sonny boy, but they are harder to do with a daughter. And I missed it. Dad had not been pleased with my career choice, but nationwide television exposure is a modest equalizer. My brother, a surgeon and married with adorable children, shares my absence of social graces, but athletic and passable looking boys are cut slack. Even if there had been someone around to teach us cool, it wouldn’t have stuck. 

“I’ve asked Marie Tomaskiewicz, better known as Mar-T, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to answer the questions about the Voyager 1 situation,” Sandra Cooke, the White House press secretary, announces to the press crew.

“Thank you,” I say to Sandra, and I agree with mom, I should brush my hair straight at the sides, add color, and capture Sandra’s smile, although up to now, my face was never interested in looking pretty. I point to the well-known Fox News correspondent who is frantically waving his hand.

“Ms. Tomaskiewicz,” he says, pronouncing my name correctly but with a Southern twang. “Will you verify what my Fox News Sources say about the Voyager–it’s a Democratic plot diverting our attention from rampant voting fraud and directing the spacecraft to explode over red states.”

“No, it’s not a plot, it is a real happening. We think that the Voyager will burn up when it enters the Earth atmosphere. The turnaround of the Voyager remains a conundrum.”

I give a nod and a half smile to myself, knowing that Fox News doesn’t like big words.

“Barbara Rosenthal from the New York Times speaking. Do you have any explanation for the rapid speed of the Voyager and its ability to communicate with us?”

“No,” I answer.

“And another thing, the religious communities are calling the Voyager’s return, a gift from God, the Christmas Spaceship, they liken it to the arrival of the Three Kings bringing symbolic gifts for us. Do you agree?” she continues.

And so, it goes.

“Mom, I know Pasadena is close to Hollywood, no film offers yet, but I have a larger office with a window. The make-up person at the news conference says I have lovely features. I should smile more and stand straighter. She’ll touch up my hair with streaks of color before the next conference. Tell brother I know his surgery takes precedence, but maybe he’ll take time and see my next presentation.”

Mom is worried. There are many items on her list and unmarried at age 32 is one of them. “Have you met any suiters?” she asks at every phone call, her voice high-pitched with hope.

I appear normal. Tall, well-defined features, big eyes, blue, blinking too much perhaps, I’m slim, I exercise and shower daily, but there are things you can’t hide. If you happen to say hello to me at one of our many meetings and parties and mention the weather or a sporting event to keep the conversation going, I more than likely will provide you with important facts such as “you know the salmon they served at dinner are called anadromous fish—fish that migrate from the ocean to spawn in fresh water.”

I liked monkeying around too much. That was also on mom’s list. When Howie Weiner fondled my breasts while we were behind the seventh-grade coat room, I became hooked. Mom, who has a trace of flake in her, stopped laughing when I told her about the pleasure, turned stern, and provided me with my teenage mantra. “Remember, never, never, let the boys take off your panties until you are 21.” If she could, she would have placed a padlock on my underwear.

NASA, JPL, the Department of Defense, and the CIA are magnificent, comprehensive, and the daily meetings are focused and predictable.

“They come in peace,” we say.

“They come to take over our planet because that’s what we would do,” the Department of Defense responds.

“They have told us their power source—positively charged electrons (positrons) reacting with negatively charged electrons releasing immense energy when they annihilate each other,” we say.

“So, what do they need us for,” the CIA says.

The religious people awaiting the gift from God kneel in prayer in front of my condominium, chanting for Saint Mar-T to make an appearance. Becoming the spokesperson for their deity contrasts with the Satanists, who are present in fewer numbers, but carry larger and more professional looking posters condemning me for shuttling in the anti-Christ. I have become the JPL’s Dr. Fauci.

A doorman, pool, gym, a gathering room for socialization, students with wealthy parents, families with young children, aspiring young actors sharing rooms, and single people from the JPL like me, our condominium is on television daily much to the displeasure of the Condo Association.

Two bedrooms and two baths, small but up to date. It’s safe. It’s good. Some nights, I sit by the pool with my computer, socializing or not. People here read books. But meaningful friendships are rare—maybe it’s me, smiley, but aloof, despite my overnight fame.

I fly to Washington for the telecast. My hair is straightened, my teeth whitened, my white blouse is unbuttoned at the top, my oval emerald necklace, father’s gift for my 21st birthday, sparkles.

“Thank you, Sandra, and Vice-President Costen, I would like to summarize our thoughts about the re-entry of Voyager 1. Please save questions for later.

“The Voyager 1 is returning to the vicinity of Earth. It is being controlled by an unknown force that communicates in English and has capabilities that are astonishing. Information about themselves and scientific advice for us have been implanted in the capsule that we can open when the Voyager lands. They have promised a soft and safe arrival and wish to speak to General Waldheim. The concept of death is not in their vocabulary.”

Sunday is free and I am back in California. Jake invites me to visit the zoo with his two children. The four of us enjoy the day, despite the overcrowding of divorced fathers practicing conspicuous parenting while they feed their children endless cotton candy mixed with snide remarks about their mothers.

Jake’s kids are like him, they never sit down. They need Ritalin. Jake, it seems, has a work persona of excitability and selfishness and a weekend persona of calm effectiveness. He invites me into their bubble of intimacy. Jake has a sense of humor. After our love making that night, he lights a pretend cigarette like Bogie, Humphrey Bogart, handing it to my lips, pretending I am Lauren Becall before asking me to roll on top. I please Jake. People who aren’t beautiful try harder.

Our telescopes pick-up the Voyager. Their robot or mastership out in the periphery assures us that after several circumferences of our planet the spacecraft will land near the original launching site (Cape Canaveral). There will be instructions on how to capture the energy process that electrons and positrons create when they inter-act, allowing us to stop polluting our world with radioactivity. “Please deliver this information to General Waldheim,” they say.

I am a guest on the PBS news. I speak for the JPL: “We think they come in peace. Their sophistication would seem to allow them to arrive here themselves, but maybe our atmosphere is toxic to them. Remember the movie Mars Attacks, where yodeling explodes the alien’s brains? Voyager was two-thousandth of light year away from us when it was intercepted—the closest star with planets that could sustain life, as we define it, is thousands of light years away. Science teaches us that physics obeys the same laws everywhere in space and time, but apparently not for these guys. Maybe the speed of light is not limiting and maybe homo sapiens are not the final product of evolution. The opening of the capsule will be an enlightenment bestowed upon the people of Earth, and for me, a scientist, a spokesperson, a woman, and a faux Saint, it will be the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming.”

I believe that my version of the crystal ball will bring no trouble. And somewhere, hidden in my brain hideaway, probably in the frontal cortex, are fantasies about being a Saint. Wallowing in adulation, preaching inspiration, and wearing long white gowns might not be so bad.

It is the day before Christmas, almost a year after the Voyager turned around. “Mar-T, Mar-T, Saint Mar-T,” is chanted in front of my window at all hours. Today’s LA Times has a cartoon drawing of me with a halo around my head greeting stereotyped aliens sporting antenna ears. It’s another sunny California day, warm, but still light sweaters are needed in the afternoon. It’s the day NASA launches the interceptor rocket ship loaded with explosives.

The JPL was not consulted.

“If we can’t meet General Waldheim, please introduce us to Johnny B. Goode,” is the Voyager’s final transmission.


The Golden Record accompanying Voyager 1 and 2

Greeting from Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the United Nations
Greetings in 55 Languages
United Nations Greetings/Whale songs
Sounds of Earth
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major by Johann Sebastian Bach
Ketawang : Puspåwårnå (Kinds of Flowers)
Cengunmé performed by musicians of Benin
Alima Song performed by Mbuti of the Ituri Rainforest
Barnumbirr (Morning Star) and Moikoi Song from Northern Territory Australia
El Cascabel from Mexico
Johnny B. Goode written and performed by Chuck Berry
Mariuamangi from Papua New Guinea
Sokaku-Reibo (Depicting the Cranes in their Nest)
Partita for Violin Solo No. 3 in E Major by Johann Sebastian Bach
The Magic Flute Act 11: Hell’s Vengeance Boils in my Heart by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Chakrulo performed by Georgian State Merited Ensemble
Roncadoras and Drums from the Ancash Region of Peru
Melancholy Blues performed by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Muğam Recorded by Radio Moscow
The Rite of Spring Part 11-The Sacrifice composed by Igor Stravinsky
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 11: Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major by Johann Sebastian Bach
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67: Allegro Con Brio by Ludwig Van Beethoven
Izlel E Delyu Haydutin Recorded in Smolyan, Bulgaria
Navajo Night Chant, Yeibichai Dance
The Fairie Round performed by Early Music Consort of London
Naranaratana Kookokoo (The Cry of the Megapode Bird)
Wedding Song Recorded in Huancavelica, Peru
Liu Shui (Flowing Streams)
Bhairavi: Jaat Kahan Ho Recorded in Bombay, India
Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground Written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson
String Quartet No. 13: in B-Flat Major, Opus 130: V. Cavatina Composed by Ludwig Van Beethoven

Michael Ellman is a retired physician from the University of Chicago and writer. His collection of published short stories, Let Me Tell You About Angela, is an Eric Hoffer Award Finalist. His novel, Code-One Dancing is pretty good also. He lives in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, and is an exemplary citizen who is kind to his wife, children, and dog.