NASA’s Fight to Protect Aliens From Naked Ladies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Space travel is one thing, but basic anatomy is quite another.
On March 2, 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10, the first probe destined to leave our solar system. Carl Sagan, the renowned public scientist, frequent NASA collaborator and proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) convinced the agency to affix a 6-by-9-inch plaque to its antenna engraved with, as he put it, “a little bit of where we are, when we are, and who we are” on the off chance that an alien intelligence might find the probe. But when and if they do, aliens won’t be getting the whole picture.
The most famous image on that plaque is of a naked cis man and woman. But while the man’s penis is on full view, the drawing omitted any sign of the woman’s vulva. In other words, as the scientist-artist Joe Davis puts it, we sent aliens an image of “a man and a Barbie.”
It is not clear why the Pioneer plaque omitted external female genitalia, but not male genitalia. Sagan once claimed it was a stylistic choice, emulating ancient Greek statuary. Linda Salzman Sagan, his wife and the artist behind the sketch, claimed she deleted a line representing the woman’s vulva from her initial draft to head off potential qualms from NASA. Pioneer supervisor Robert S. Kraemer claimed they submitted a design featuring the vulval line to his higher-ups only for them to demand an edit. A representative from NASA told OZY that they would see if anyone could comment on this, but apparently never found someone in a position to do so.
But this was not the only time NASA sexually censored its SETI projects. These outbound missives are quixotic stabs at introducing the entirety of human or earthly reality to beings that may work and think in radically different ways than we do. So when these messages are crafted — points out space artist, SETI communicator and longtime Sagan collaborator Jon Lomberg — their contents are often tailored as much, if not more so, to the human audience guaranteed to see them. The Pioneer plaque project — a rush job cobbled together in less than a year — was one of the least alien-oriented messages ever sent to aliens.
This earthbound orientation explains why someone censored the plaque. NASA depended on popular support to propel and justify funding and so could not risk alienating powerful political blocs uncomfortable with sex and nudity. And the flack they took in the press for even the censored plaque — newspapers lambasted the agency for wasting taxpayer money on sending out space smut — likely reaffirmed the necessity of sexual censorship, at least in the most public-facing projects, to NASA and many SETI types.
That is likely why, when NASA in 1977 launched two Voyager probes carrying records of audio and visual data about humanity, the agency censored a picture of a naked man holding hands with a naked pregnant woman, using instead a silhouette with no anatomical detail save a diagram of a baby in utero. “I pointed out to NASA that we selected a picture that minimized eroticism,” Lomberg notes. “A NASA lawyer replied to me that some people think that naked, pregnant women are extremely erotic. That surely must rank among one of the most unusual statements to appear on NASA letterhead.”
Lomberg points out that some nudity made it onto the record — a rear shot of nude African hunters stalking prey, a shot of a newly delivered baby, and his update on the Pioneer plaque sketch, which featured female pubic hair but still no vulva. These images, he suggests, got to stay in because they didn’t trip sexual or sexualizable nudity alarms among the NASA brass.
That matters less for SETI efforts writ large now than in the ’70s. Congress defunded NASA’s SETI projects in 1993, dubbing them wasteful. As private groups have taken over, they’ve adopted less censorial perspectives. Some have even advocated beaming the entirety of Google, porn and all, across the skies. The various radio signals we constantly bounce all over Earth also likely incidentally send all manner of smutty messages off into space.
But Davis, the scientist-artist, argues SETI’s real value is in helping us take a critical look in the mirror as a species, whether or not that reflection ever reaches “little green men in flying saucers.” To him, all instances of censorship betray that fundamental goal. That is why he saw fit to poke at NASA’s censorship in 1986, first in projects called Poetica Vaginal and Microvenus. For the first, he built a vaginal detector to record contractions in a group of ballerinas’ vaginas, then used an MIT radar dish to beam that data to two distant star systems for 15 minutes, before the U.S. Air Force shut him down. For the second, he programmed a 47 base pair sequence into a bacteria species that, when decoded in the right way, formed a runic symbol for Mother Earth that also resembles the Pioneer plaque’s omitted vulva and jokingly proposed releasing the species into space. He also opposes the goal of putting humanity’s best foot forward, insisting that is equally censorial and thus a disservice to human self-knowledge. So he is currently working on a swan song message to aliens listing out human atrocities visited on each other.
And even if NASA’s censorial attitude is no longer relevant to SETI, it still may represent a dire threat to science. When public morality and politicking play a role in deciding what gets studied and how, it often leads to systematic neglect of taboo yet vital subjects. NASA’s choice to omit a vulva from an etching sent beyond our solar system in 1972 was not just a historical oddity. It was a symbol of humanity’s reticence to see ourselves honestly, and the challenge of conducting scientific work dispassionately and thus optimally. In other words, it was a reflection of humanity at its worst. At least aliens will almost certainly never find it.