The vagina missing from space

Words: Jessica Thomson

Out in space, somewhere just shy of 10 billion miles away, 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, with their last signal being received on 22 January 2003, 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. 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 gold-plated plaque.

Carl Sagan approached NASA with the suggestion 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. They agreed, but only gave him mere months to prepare Earth’s first message intended for alien eyes.

Sagan, his artist wife Linda Salzman 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, including instructions on how to find the solar system using nearby pulsars, a map of the solar system indicating which planet is Earth, and an image of a naked man and woman. The choice to send nude images was made by Salzman, who 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 extra-terrestrials about human reproductive anatomy.

This is a problem Earthlings suffer from more widely: the traditional pornification of women’s naked bodies, even when existing in the same context as men’s, continues to manifest today in moral panics around breastfeeding and sex education classes – to the extent that even those who have vaginas are often unfamiliar with them.

There was a lot of pushback from the public about sending naked images on the plaque at all. Many claimed it was pornographic, with some newspapers editing out penises and nipples when publishing the image.

The strange thing is that our interstellar nudes aren’t biologically accurate. One figure has all the bits you’d expect it to have: a surprisingly jacked figure, arms, legs, and a small penis. The other, however, is missing something that you might not have noticed. 

The female figure has no pudendal cleft – in other words, no ‘slit’ at the front of the vagina where the labia part ways. You know the one. To a hypothetical alien observer, there is no visual sign that around half of Earth’s population have a hole tucked away between their legs. It might 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 bodies. 

So why did Sagan and the others decide that this first image would be biologically inaccurate? Basically, NASA thought that the pudendal cleft 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 design.

Another reason given is that the cleft is never seen in Greek statues. The Greeks got lots of things right, but they also got a lot of things wrong on this front: for instance, Hippocrates famously thought that the womb could wander around the body as it pleased, and that that was the reason for various illnesses. Nonetheless, as the traditional pinnacle of (Western) Earth culture, the Greeks had the last say.

Several people noticed the absence of the vagina at the time. One letter, sent to the Washington Daily News, stated that ‘if the woman was to be censored, then for consistency the noses of the humans should have been painted blue’. Many also took issue with the race of the pair; Sagan originally meant for the couple to appear ‘panracial’ (whatever that means), but the man’s initial Afro hairstyle was changed to appear more Mediterranean – and the fact that both hairstyles are drawn as outlines gives the impression that they’re blonde. These traits thus imply that the pair are white, fair and European-coded. Again, this isn’t really representative of the planet Earth as a whole.

NASA’s fear of naked women existing anywhere but in a top-shelf magazine again reared its head 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 clips of music from across the world, and 116 images of people and nature, also organised by Sagan. While there are various images of clothed people, one picture was originally going to be of a naked man and a naked pregnant woman. But due to the public distress caused by the Pioneer plaque, NASA elected to change that image to a silhouette of the couple with the baby inside the womb. The records do contain close-up diagrams detailing the anatomy of the sex organs, but these aren’t available to be viewed in the NASA-approved image gallery. Even so, ET may well miss the logical leap required to connect that weird, oyster-looking organ with the nude outlines they see.

Aliens thus have no way to know that half of humans have vaginas. Sure, general prudishness was higher in the 1970s, but it didn’t stop them sending Pioneer Adam’s dick off into the abyss. And this is a problem Earthlings suffer from more widely: the traditional pornification of women’s naked bodies, even when existing in the same context as men’s, continues to manifest today in moral panics around breastfeeding and sex education classes – to the extent that even those who have vaginas are often unfamiliar with them.

In that way, four of the five objects we’ve sent out of our solar system to drift towards eternity tell a lie. In another way, they’re uniquely honest – at least about the inequalities that exist on Earth. Perhaps the aliens won’t care at all, and will eat the probes as dinner party hors d’ouevres; this may not ever matter, in the grand scheme of the universe, but it’s a window into what matters to us, now, here.

learn more

  • BOOK: The Depths of Space: The Story of the Pioneer Planetary Probes – M. Wolverton
  • BOOK: Carl Sagan, Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective Carl Sagan
  • BOOK: Murmurs of Earth Carl Sagan

Based in London, Jess is a big fan of carb-based foods, cosy jumpers and small dogs. You can find her writing on Twitter and Instagram.