Out in space, somewhere just shy of 10 billion miles away from our tiny green planet, are two of the most distant human-made objects. Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively, designed for a mission to explore Jupiter and the asteroid belt. They have long since lost contact with NASA, but we might not be the last living beings to look at these brave metal explorers. There is an infinitesimally improbable scenario where life from some other solar system finds the Pioneer probes, perhaps up to millions of years in the future once they’ve travelled far enough away (after all, they’re each currently only about 0.001 light years away; the nearest star to us alone is 4 light years away). Just in case our stray probes get picked up by some intergalactic pest control, we left them a return address in the form of an engraved plaque.
Eric Burgess, an English journalist, first had the idea that in the case of aliens finding Pioneer 10 or 11, we should leave some kind of message detailing where the probes came from, and who sent them. Burgess suggested this idea to Carl Sagan, who approached NASA with the suggestion. They agreed, but only gave him a mere 3 weeks to prepare Earth’s first message intended for alien eyes – and you thought your work deadlines were tight.
Sagan and Frank Drake, one of the founders of SETI, together designed a plaque to put on the probes, and were faced with the fairly significant task of composing the perfect “first contact” message. Several important images for identifying who sent the probe were carved onto the plaque (there’s nothing worse than a text from an unknown number), including instructions on how to find the Solar System using nearby pulsars, an image of the Solar System indicating which one is Earth, and an image of a naked man and woman. The choice to send nude images was made by Linda Salzman, who was responsible for preparing the artwork. She thought that naked figures would avoid the problem of choosing a style of clothing that would represent the human species as a whole, and also educate extraterrestrials about our reproductive anatomy.
There was also a lot of pushback from the public about sending naked images on the plaque at all. Many claimed it was “pornographic”2, with some newspapers editing out the man’s genitals and the woman’s nipples when publishing the image.
The strange thing is that our interstellar nudes aren’t even biologically accurate. The male figure has all the bits you’d expect him to have: a surprisingly jacked figure, arms, legs, and a teeny tiny penis. The female figure, however, is missing something that may be unnoticeable to those who grew up playing with Barbie dolls.
The female figure has no pudendal cleft, or in other words, no “slit” at the front of her vagina where the labia part ways. You know the one. To a hypothetical alien observer, there is no visual sign that women do in fact have a hole tucked away between their legs. It may seem like no big deal, but to our hypothetical alien who has no context or prior knowledge of our biology, this omission may lead to incorrect conclusions about human female bodies.
So why did Sagan and the others decide that the first image of a human female to leave the solar system would be biologically inaccurate? Basically, NASA thought that it would be too obscene. In Robert S. Kraemer’s memoirs he mentions that the original design did indeed include the little upwards line to indicate the labial opening, but that John Naugle, the former head of NASA’s Office of Space Science, insisted they remove it before he approved the plaque design1. Perhaps he thought it would make the aliens blush? Another reason given for the lack of the pudendal cleft on the plaque woman is that it’s never seen in Greek statues of women2. The Greeks may have got many things right, but they also got many things wrong, often regarding women’s bodies. For instance, Hippocrates thought that the womb could wander around a woman’s body as it pleased and that this was the reason for various illnesses in women. Not exactly the all-knowing bunch of blokes that should be influencing what parts of women that klingons should be able to see.
NASA repeated their pattern of apparent terror of the prospect of seeing a naked female body anywhere but in a top-shelf magazine when they launched the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977. The Voyager probes, which have overtaken the Pioneer probes in the race to interstellar space already, also contain information about Earth and humanity in the form of the famous Golden Records. The records contain various sounds and music from across the world, and 116 images of people and nature, also organised by Sagan. While there are various images of clothed men and women, one picture was originally going to be of a naked man and a naked pregnant woman. However, due to the public distress caused by the idea of aliens having seen human titties on the Pioneer plaque, NASA elected to change this image to a silhouette of the couple with the baby silhouetted within the woman’s womb3. The records do contain diagrams detailing the anatomy of the male and female sex organs, but these aren’t available to be viewed in the NASA-approved image gallery. Even so, perhaps ET wouldn’t make the logical leap of associating that weird, oyster-looking organ with the images of women that they see.
Aliens thus have no way to really know that human women have vaginas. Perhaps this was due to the general prudishness of the time, but this didn’t stop them sending Pioneer Adam’s splinter dick off into the abyss, all while censoring Eve’s privates. Women’s bodies have always been reviled as pornographic and continue to be today (why else would anyone have an issue with breastfeeding in public?). It’s getting better with time, I guess, as women can now show their ankles in the streets without receiving glares from all around. However, it’s a shame that the four of the five objects we have sent out of our solar system to drift towards eternity contain images of the human female body that don’t tell the whole story. Or maybe they do; they tell the story of the inequalities women have faced on this planet and the silencing of our biology by men. Or maybe the aliens won’t care at all and will eat the probes as dinner party appeterifs. This may not ever matter, in the grand scheme of the universe, but it’s a window into what matters to us, now, here.
- Wolverton, M. (2004). The Depths of Space: The Story of the Pioneer Planetary Probes Joseph Henry Press. pp. 79, 80 & 82. ISBN 0-309-53323-6
- Sagan, C. (2009). Carl Sagan, Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Cambridge University Press pp. 22-25 ISBN 0-521-78303-8
- Jon Lomberg: “Pictures of Earth”. in Carl Sagan: Murmurs of Earth, 1978, New York, ISBN 0-679-74444-4