The "Pioneer Plaque"

"... the initial suggestion to include
some message aboard Pioneer 10 was
made by Eric Burgess and Richard
Hoagland ..."

-- Carl Sagan, SCIENCE, 175 (1972) 881.

In the late Fall of 1971, the usual crowd of newsmen and scientists from around the Nation (and the world) -- including the usual complement of outright "space junkies" -- were gathered once again at NASA's world-renowned Jet Propulsion laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, southern California. The occasion: the imminent arrival of the first U.S. spacecraft destined to be placed in orbit around Mars--

Mariner 9.

On this November afternoon, space "luminaries" milled around JPL's Von Karman Auditorium like mayflies around a lightpole in a Georgia swamp -- historic space figures ranging from Wernher Von Braun to Arthur C. Clarke -- as the seconds ticked down toward the long-anticipated spacecraft "retrofiring. Their unanimous objective: to be there in person at this historic moment ... which some of them had been anticipating for a lifetime ...

Suddenly, a PA announcement crackled over the close-circuit television system in the Auditorium, coming from the "SFOF" -- the Mariner Control Center -- just up the hill: Mariner 9's engine had ignited on time ... and the spacecraft was now (actually, several minutes before, at the speed of light for radio transmissions ...) rapidly decelerating around Mars...

Long minutes passed.

Then, a cheer -- from literally hundreds of special guests, NASA employees, contractors and the press -- all clustering around the multiple TV screens arrayed around the Auditorium: the "real-time" telemetered readout of Mariner 9's space motion, relative to Mars, had dropped below critical "escape velocity"--

Regardless of what might happen, Mariner 9 was now -- and forever -- a prisoner of Mars ...

From the sheer elation of that moment, the mood among those gathered changed ... as the initial Mariner 9 imaging sequences disappointingly revealed only "blank Martian close-ups" -- repeatedly being "painted" by the spacecraft computer transmissions on those same TV screens.

The problem: a raging Martian global duststorm ... that had chosen that precise moment to completely blanket the whole planet -- creating high-tech spacecraft images of "bed sheets" (as one wry pundit put it), followed by "computer-enhanced bed sheets!"

It was in this curious "emotional letdown" to an unprecedented moment, that some of us were quietly approached by one of those faceless "non-celebrities" who had been quietly milling around the room earlier that afternoon; his name was Pete Waller, and he was from one of NASA's other Centers, managing another unmanned mission -- this one shortly leaving Earth for the planet beyond Mars ... for the giant of the solar system, Jupiter itself.

A spacecraft to be called "Pioneer 10."

Would we be interested, Waller asked -- while waiting for the unending Martian dust to fall -- in seeing the actual Pioneer 10 spacecraft, before it left the entire solar system ... never to return?

That was how a small group of newsmen -- including a space pioneer named Eric Burgess, and myself -- came to visit briefly with a manmade machine destined for an even more unimaginable journey than Mariner 9; for Pioneer 10, within a few short months, was going where no human machine had ever gone ... not just to Jupiter, but after that, to voyage as Humankind's first official emissary on a one-way odyssey into the Milky Way ... beyond.

So it was -- because of a chance duststorm swirling on a nearby planet one November afternoon -- that Eric Burgess and I found ourselves face-to-face with this unprecedented NASA mission; how we came face-to-face with "the meaning of it all" ... including ... who might one day find this tiny sliver of Humanity, this "Pioneer" ...; how we decided, in a split second that very afternoon, that Pioneer should -- must, somehow -- carry into Infinity a literal "Message from Mankind."

The full story of how we came to present our joint idea to Carl, and what he later did to accomplish this equally unprecedented "mission," has been told in detail elsewhere ("The Monuments of Mars," Richard C. Hoagland, North Atlantic Books:Berkeley, 1987, 1992; "Murmurs Of Earth," Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, et al, Random House:New York, 1978; "Pioneer: First to Jupiter, Saturn, and Beyond," Richard O. Fimmel, James Van Allen, and Eric Burgess, NASA-SP 446, 1980).

We present here then, in unedited form, the original Sagan et al paper, published in SCIENCE magazine, March, 1972 -- describing the background thinking, significant problems, and calculations that went into our initial "Message from Mankind" ...


In order to offer genuine authenticity of this document, these are scanned images of the actual article.