September, 1977: NASA launches two Voyager spacecraft to explore the outer reaches of the solar system. Each probe is equipped with a phonograph record containing images and sounds that could be used to teach beings from other planets or galaxies what life was like on Earth. The so-called Golden Record is the intergalactic version of a message in a bottle.

Among the files on the record, which has 240,000 times less memory than today’s average smartphone, are the sound of a kiss; photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Mahal and a herd of Olympic sprinters; a recording of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”; and, perhaps most important, a mysterious outline of a nude man and pregnant woman.

The team behind The Golden Record wanted to include diagrams of human anatomy and reproduction, but NASA ended up vetoing a nude photograph of “a man and pregnant woman quite unerotically holding hands,” according to Jon Lomberg’s 1978 book Murmurs of Earth. Eventually they reached a compromise: a pair of silhouettes suggesting the male and female figures, with a fetus visible inside the woman’s womb.

But it wasn’t just the image of an anonymous naked woman that made waves: Women were involved in all stages of the preparation for the Voyager launches. The Farthest, a new documentary directed by multi-award winning editor and director Emer Reynolds, can be seen as a sequel to Hidden Figures.

Below, Reynolds, whose last project was the Grierson-nominated Here Was Cuba, gives us an inside look into this now-unfathomably controversial chapter in space exploration.


What drew you to the subject of the Golden Record?
The Golden Record onboard the Voyager spacecraft has always fascinated me, though I’m not sure when I first heard about it. The idea is so romantic and quixotic—that this team of scientists and visionaries, led by the inspirational Carl Sagan, conducted a kind of mental experiment: “How would we go about describing ourselves, and life on Earth, to aliens or far distant civilizations, should we ever encounter any?” The realization that these glorious gold-plated records would be attached to the outside of a spacecraft, destined to orbit our galaxy for billions of years, and which contain a stylus and instructions how to build a turntable, was so idealistic and so crazy, but so full of hope! Once we began making a film of the whole Voyager adventure, the Golden Record part of the story would prove to be an amazing and emotional way to explore wider, more philosophical issues to do with humanity and legacy and the big, primal, cosmic questions that haunt us all: Why are we here? Is there anybody out there? How will it all end?

Was it a challenge to get access to so much information from NASA?
As Nick Sagan, son of Carl, says in the film, “The Record really is the heartbeat of the ship itself.” We sought out interviews with all the surviving members of the core team who had put the record together, and though some sadly could not take part, we were so lucky to be able to interview three of them—Frank Drake, Tim Ferris and Jon Lomberg—and to hear the story of the Golden Record first-hand. We were also fortunate to be able to reference the beautiful and definitive book on the Golden Record: Murmurs of Earth, which had been written in 1978 by the full team, which included Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Linda Salzman-Sagan.

Many of those involved with the production of the film are women. Was this something that was done consciously? I hate even asking questions like this; we should be past this in 2017, but Tribeca’s website specifically tagged this film as being directed by a woman.
A lot of the central team that made the film, including myself, producer Clare Stronge, line producer Zlata Filipović, archive researcher Aoife Carey and cinematographer Kate McCullough, are indeed women, but that wasn’t a conscious choice. They are all key collaborators I frequently work with and without whom I’d be lost! However, the decision to try include so many women scientists and commentators, including Carolyn Porco, Fran Bagenal and Candy Hansen, was a conscious decision. I deliberately wanted to source as many involved women as I could, to hear their stories and to appeal to—and hopefully inspire—young girls with an interest in space and science.

It’s so easy for all stories to be drowned in a chorus of male voices, and I think as filmmakers we must deliberately invite women into the conversation until such a time as it’s utterly normal to have the story told as strongly by women as by men. I saw a complex historical documentary film recently that had not one single female voice in it, and I’m not sure the filmmakers even noticed. After every screening of The Farthest people hugely respond to the powerful and compelling and passionate women contributors, which is very rewarding.

Can you tell me a little about the challenges and controversy surrounding sending the nude images to space?
The real controversy happened before Voyager, over the plaque that was placed aboard the two Pioneer spacecraft launched in 1972 and 1973. It was the forerunner to the Voyager Golden Record experiment and a very early attempt to communicate something of our existence to aliens. It was a very simple sketch of a nude man and woman and caused much outrage at the time. There were letters to the editor in newspapers accusing NASA of sending smut to space and spreading filth beyond our solar system. One newspaper published the image with the man’s genitalia air-brushed out and another newspaper published the image with both the man’s genitalia and the woman’s nipples removed. The sketch itself, by today’s standards in particular, is extremely tame, so it’s certainly interesting from this perspective to imagine it causing any upset.

The Golden Record images team wanted to show nude humans in order to describe our anatomy to aliens, and wanted to be “neither sexist, pornographic nor clinical,” in the words of Golden Record Designer Jon Lomberg, and they decided that one way to perhaps circumvent the potential for objection was to include a photo of a pregnant woman. “Pregnant women are not considered salacious,” as Golden Record technical director Frank Drake says in the film. But because of the negative response to the Pioneer drawings, the powers that be at NASA decided against sending even this mild depiction of nudity on the Voyager Golden Record and made the team remove it.

So what images ended up making the cut for the Golden Record?
The issue was resolved by the inclusion of a silhouette version of the rejected photo in order to clearly demonstrate to aliens our reproductive cycle—and hopefully not offend anyone!

To what extent does the film cover the nude picture scandal?
It wouldn’t quite be right to call it a scandal. Maybe the Pioneer plaque was, but they successfully dodged any scandal on Voyager. In terms of its coverage in the film, the film tells the 40-year and 12-billion-mile (and counting) story of the Voyager mission, including the Golden Record, so the story of the rejection of the nude photo is only an amusing and entertaining chapter in a long and very complex adventure story. Modern audiences find the prudishness quite hilarious and old-fashioned, which in itself is an interesting comment on our exposure to nudity nowadays.

Anything you were surprised to learn in the process of making this film?
I have been surprised to learn there are space fanatics lurking all over that place, hiding in plain sight. The huge number of people who have confessed a desire to be an astronaut or to a deep love of space, or science fiction, has been a complete thrill to me. I didn’t know there were so many of us!


The Farthest makes its international premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20 as part of the Viewpoints section. It debuted in February at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival in Ireland, where it won multiple awards, including the Audience Award and Best Irish Documentary.