NPF: THE SNAPSHOT

When the first humans set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969 (Apollo 11), many people know that they left behind a plaque and an American flag to clarify that We conquered space and not You. Space aficionados probably know some other neat trivia about the event, but I've rarely encountered anyone who knows the story of the most interesting artifact left behind by the astronauts.

The U.S. collected 73 "goodwill messages" from nations around the world and, showing off some technology that was new at the time, engraved every word on a tiny silicon disc. If you look closely, the tiny blocks of text are faintly noticeable in this picture, with a 50-cent piece for reference:

Thankfully, NASA's archives contain a photocopy, albeit of mediocre quality, of the full text of the tiny messages. It is an amazing time capsule of the world in 1969. Scrolling through the document reveals a parade of CIA-supported right-wing dictators, Soviet client state puppets, and the combination of earnest revolutionaries and genuine crackpots governing African nations less than 10 years old. I can't help but point out a few highlights.

We have craziness, courtesy of Liberian president W.V.S. Tubman:

We salute these explorers of outer space and pray for their security and safety while we admire their courage and intrepidity. I ask them to bear this message to the inhabitants of the Moon if they find any there. If they do not, it is my desire that this message be one of greetings from the people of Liberia and myself to the Moon, Nebulous satellite of the Earth.

Is "nebulous" the right word there? L.S. Senghor, the president of Senegal, gives us the flavor of the late '60s with a line straight out of a blaxploitation film:

This is a message from black militants. It is a message of human solidarity, a message of peace.

I…see. The Polish Ambassador offers tidings simply drenched in the sentimentality and human feeling for which Soviet Bloc governments were so well known:

Although we are not suggesting any message from the Polish Head of State, please be assured that the achievements of the U.S. astronauts are followed by us with great interest, appreciation and best wishes for the success in their endeavor.

But seriously, a few of the messages are remarkably lyrical, using the kind of language that modern political leaders have abandoned in the continuing effort to dumb it down:

The Government and people of Trinidad and Tobago acclaim this historic triumph of science and the human will. It is our earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world. (Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago)

I would hope that when this passenger from the sky leaves man's imprint on lunar soil, he will feel how proud we are to belong to the generation which has accomplished this feat. I hope also that he would tell the Moon how beautiful it is when it illuminates the nights of the Ivory Coast. I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are, when viewed from up there. May his word, descending from the sky, find in the Cosmos the force and light which will permit him to convince humanity of the beauty of progress in brotherhood and peace. (Felix Houphouet-Boigny, President of Ivory Coast)

We feel admiration and confidence toward all those who have cooperated in this performance, and especially towards the three courageous men who take with them our hopes, as well as those, from all nations, who were their forerunners or who will follow them in space. With awe we consider the power with which man has been entrusted and the duties which devolve on him. We are deeply conscious of our responsibility with respect to the tasks which may be open to us in the universe, but also to those which remain to be fulfilled on this earth, so to bring more justice and more happiness to mankind. (Baudouin, King of Belgium)

Pope Paul VI also contributed the oddly appropriate-for-the-occasion Psalms 8, although we may safely assume that its author did not have lunar conquest in mind.

Overall, I love the story of this disc and its text as quasi-time capsule from a very different time. For those of us who were not alive to see this happen these words provide valuable context for one of the most interesting eras in history, politically speaking, representing the peak of both the Cold War and American power. For you old timers who saw this happen live, hopefully these well-wishes lead to a positive trip down memory lane.

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27 Responses to “NPF: THE SNAPSHOT”

  1. The Man, The Myth Says:

    What a cool post. I re-watched Apollo 13 a couple weeks ago and it just seemed so… dated. If we went to the moon today and we got that little camera image again of someone climbing down a ladder in a space suit I would turn it off! Where are the explosions? When does Bruce Willis drill it for oil or nuclear bombs? Our technology has made a spectacular human accomplishment walking on the moon look quaint! I'm not sure if that is a positive development or not…

  2. Maddy Says:

    Like. Thanks.

    My favourite is Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago.

  3. Neal Deesit Says:

    I didn't see the Apollo 13 landing live. But on July 30, 1971, I was in the University of Texas' Co-op, going to the second floor walk-up teller windows where student with an ID could cash a check, typically a busy place on a Friday afternoon. At the top of the stairs, I noticed a television set that had been placed atop the usual shelf display, about eight feet up, not at eye level, but not far above it. As I got closer, I saw astronauts from Apollo 15, live, walking on the moon. I stopped and looked around at the students shopping near me. Nobody but me was paying the slightest bit of attention to the moon landing. I was amazed to see that moon landings had become a ho-hum event in just two years.

  4. Joe Max Says:

    I saw it live, I still remember it. I was 14. Thanks for the memories.

  5. ts46064 Says:

    How could the same species both land themselves on the moon and create/listen to ICP music? Miracles.

  6. Andy Brown Says:

    Fascinating. And then something changed our minds and we decided to invest the planet's resources in consumerism and Nabelshau instead of exploration. Will there be any kind of triumphal moment when we can lyricize that? Maybe as we turn the last bucket of oil into Silly Bandz and pink tomatoes one of our TV celebrities can gather all the most inspiring ad copy and chisel it into a rock. To help future generations understand what the point was.

  7. Peggy Says:

    @ts46046: I think you win the internet with that comment.

  8. Paul B Says:

    I remember watching this from my barracks in Viet Nam (Cam Ranh Bay) that I called home. The memory is a bit fuzzy but I recall that I had CQ (Charge of Quarters) duty that night and watched it on the Armed Forces station on a tiny B/W TV.

  9. sluggo Says:

    Apollo 11 was the summer before I entered Kindergarten. I would have thought that I would be living on the moon by now, but that dream is such a distant memory.

    Speaking of distant memories…….. I just want to say one word……… TANG.

  10. Jimcat Says:

    @Andy Brown: "And then something changed our minds and we decided to invest the planet's resources in consumerism and Nabelshau instead of exploration."

    That should surprise no one. It was the whole point of winning the Cold War (of which the moon landing was one of the bigger shots). Triumph of capitalism and the Western lifestyle and all that.

  11. Fiddlin' Bill Says:

    My favorite bit of memory from this amazing moment was Walter Cronkite's dismay at finding hippies in Rome who didn't believe the landing was real. I interviewed a wonderful old West Virginia woman, Maggie Hammons, of Marlinton, who also had her doubts, a few years after the fact no less. She was a repository of ancient English ballads and mountain stories.

  12. Tteddo Says:

    I remember being 5 and being annoyed that all the cartoons were preempted, and what's the big deal? The moon is RIGHT THERE!

  13. Elder Futhark Says:

    Tech-speaking, that silicon disc might as well be from the 1860s. I don't think people realise just how dangerous and primitive that moon shot was. They might as well have been using wax paper, basswood, hemp string, and flint for the lander. The odds calculated for Apollo 11 were 50/50. Turns out that was wildly optimistic. It's a wonder any of them made it back alive.

  14. Vinny Says:

    I was hoping for a limerick from Ireland, but was not disappointed. The president of Ireland's name was √Čamon de Valera, born in NYC to an Irish immigrant mother and a father of Cuban descent. Cool.

  15. displacedCapitalist Says:

    Millions of years from now, when our architecture have been thoroughly pounded into dust by the passage of time, this will be the only evidence that we existed.

  16. Jimcat Says:

    @ Elder Futhark: if that's the case, how do you explain the fact that six out of seven of the moon landing missions got the men to the moon and brought them back safely, and even Apollo 13 brought them back home alive? Seems as though that would indicate a higher reliability and safety factor than what you claim.

  17. Ed Says:

    Well, two points in his defense.

    First, NASA really did tell the white house that the odds were 50/50 on Apollo 11. But after that they grew pretty confident that they could repeat it.

    Second, the Apollo Guidance Computer had about 1/1000th the computing power of a cheap cellphone. Maybe less. I am continually amazed that they managed to accomplish this with such comparably primitive technology.

    These missions were essentially shoving three people in the metal nosecone of an ICBM and hoping that they could guide themselves to the moon, land, take off again, fly back, and land again. To help them pull it off they had electronics, guidance, and communications systems inferior to a Commodore desktop from 1981 and some Radio Shack transmitters.

  18. JohnR Says:

    That was one of the few times that we rented a television set to watch something. I still remember the flag and watching the guys bouncing slightly as they walked on the surface of the soundstage, ah, moon. Incredibly cool. Those were interesting years – having televisions brought into the classroom to watch various splashdowns of the Mercury and I believe at least one Gemini mission. In a sense, that's one of the big changes: the exciting parachuted splashdown and helicopter recovery has been replaced with a relatively commonplace airliner landing (with the ever-present risk of an exciting airliner crash, of course). Makes me think that we should go ahead with the foolish Mars mission; it might take some of the power away from the lunatic Beckian/Palin crowd. No chance of that, of course, with the Republican Party controlling Congress as it does.

  19. Elder Futhark Says:

    DC,

    Not likely. Solar wind and cosmic ray particles will degrade and erode the moon equipment to dust. Having an atmosphere is a good thing. They should have buried it under the lunar regolith if they wanted it to last. Unfortunately, probably our only legacy in ten million years will be the North Pacific Garbage Patch, or a thin layer of plastic in the geologic record.

  20. Monkey Business Says:

    I be honest, I envy my parents. I wish I had grown up and been able to witness a moon shot. Today, with the advancements in robotics and telepresence, it seems unlikely that man will go back to the Moon, or even Mars, any time in the near future.

    Its a real shame, honestly. I've always loved space exploration. I grew up watching Star Trek and dreaming of being the captain of the Enterprise. That there's a whole generation of kids that have grown up without a sense of the real majesty and wonder of space travel is deeply saddening.

  21. chautauqua Says:

    My favorite lunar artefact is Eugene Shoemaker. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Merle_Shoemaker

  22. displacedCapitalist Says:

    @Elder Futhark

    LMAO I knew someone would call me on that. Ok how about this?

    The Voyager I spacecraft is hurling away from the solar system at 17 m/s or 3.6 astronomical units per year (according to Wikipedia). In a million years it is very unlikely that it would have collided with anything since space is mostly empty and all things considered, it's not going that fast anyway (it will have traveled only 53 light years).

    Whaddaya think of THAT?

  23. Elder Futhark Says:

    DC,

    With no major unforeseen events, you are right. Voyagers I and II will (should) last billions of years, far longer than our species (given the trend in the fossil record, we've got a million more years if we are lucky). That's provided the bane of all futurists don't happen – Something Coming Out of Left Field. Like what? Well, maybe aliens figure out how to put stylus to groove on the Golden Records we sent out with Voyagers I and II. They decide they don't like our taste in music, and dispatch a supernova bomb towards Sol system. Or that Mexican physicist, Alcubierre's, equations may pan out and we get Warp Drive. Why not?

  24. aimai Says:

    I hopped over here from reading "CakeWrecks" at cakewrecks.com and the experience of reading those bizarre cakes and reading these snippets is somewhat the same. The Cakes are highly symbolic forms of communication that are, at least at Cake Wrecks, generally botched either visually or grammatically. The silicon chip strives to be the same kind of easily understood symbol, but its designed to impress a totally unknown and unknowable sentience using our conventional language. There's a disjuncture there which makes the whole thing as risible as sending a damned misspelled cake up to the moon. Its also so earnest and so fake sciency. Its silicon! Its cool! Probably the sentient gas cloud that stumbles across it in the trash heap of the universe will think so too! In addition here is something oddly fascinating about just reading the dated diction and stilted concepts used by the various countries and pseudo countries (the pope, really?) who were asked to contribute. I was nine in 1969. Truly, the past is another country/they do things differently there.

    aimai

  25. Megan Says:

    Thanks for this, Ed. My favorite was from Portugal: "The Portuguese people, discoverers of the unknown Earth in centuries past, know how to admire those who in our days explore outer space bringing mankind in contact with other worlds." An especially nice blend of history, longing and poetry.

  26. Steve T. Says:

    I was 13 years old, a total NASA spaceshot freak, and at SUMMER CAMP!!! There wasn't a TV within twenty miles. All we could do was listen to the camp director's car radio, and by the time I got home the next week TV wasn't running the footage any more.

    Talk about frustrating.