30 Years Ago: Man Reached for the Stars


30 Years ago George Lucas released Star Wars with the expectation that it might be more successful than his first science-fiction film, THX-1138. Certainly, critics at the studio didn't expect much, threatening the project's funding due to its apparent lack of progress, sheer weirdness, and reliance on undeveloped special effects that had to be improvised as the crew went along. But oftentimes genius emerges from the frenetic but focused efforts of desperation.

The story also borrowed liberally from heroic archetypes in many cultures, out of style in the post-modern, realist 1970's, but a long absent piece of a rich puzzle of cultural memories in both oral tradition and literature that extended back for thousands of years. The hunger for heroic meaning, which had faded at the end of the 1950's, or even in the aftermath of WW2 with its descent into darkness, automated brutality, and the unleashing of the energy of a new star in a four-ton, portable package, was sated by likeable characters who represented nothing less than a reflection of the audience itself - forming a strong neurotransmitter-approved connection with humanity.

Also in 1977, and thirty years ago this week, the Voyager spacecraft was launched by NASA. At the time, Voyager was a much bigger story than a mere movie, for Voyager included a First in human history: a recorded archive of what it meant to be human in 1977, designed by scientific experts (including Carl Sagan) and politicians to be a testament - a communication, if you will, for other civilizations that might come across Voyager in the decades ahead. Currently, Voyager is 9.6 Billion miles from earth headed in the direction of the constellation Camelopardalis.

Thirty years later, the testament of humanity which was intended to communicate clearly and forcefully with the great unknown and any inhabitants of a galactic terra incognita is a relic to people who were children at the time and unrecognizable to anyone younger, even though the science mission - and examination of interstellar plasma - continues.

Some observations:

(1) The format is a golden disk in the shape of a record (LP)
There is no readily available technology on earth that can play this testament.
How could we expect anyone else to play it if we can't on our own planet.

(2) A message is included, composed by Jimmy Carter
"We human beings are still divided into nation-states, but these states are
rapidly becoming a single global civilization..."

Mr. Carter was only briefly in power as spokesman for Earth. The communication,
while well-intentioned - was more hopeful than accurate. Within two years,
Carter's presidency was tarnished in the fiasco of Desert One and the hostage
crisis. Wars and upheavals continue...

(3) There is no mention of the Internet; it existed at the time. The Internet, if
you will, is not even restricted to earth's surface - already Java and software
from Wind River systems (and others) power rovers on Mars and interplanetary

(4) There is no reference to the human genome or DNA, instruction sets for life

In the popular memory, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Obi Wan have far outdistanced Voyager and Humanity's testament. Imagine if it was as difficult to playback Star Wars today as the unique 'golden disk.' How many times has the visual and auditory stimuli of Star Wars and its successors lit up the frontal lobe and amygdala of viewers? How many times has the 70's Golden disk done the same? The multifaceted nature of humanity, a Trinity of youthful idealism, darkness and evil, and benevolent Wisdom, is more accurately exemplified in those characters...than in the crafted message of officialdom.

The testament is the equivalent of an old newspaper, printed by a media company long out of business, with an editor in chief who retired long ago; in the interim, the old headquarters building was torn down. What would happen if the message was received? Where would a response be sent?

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