• lunar plaque with Earth's hemispheres
  • Pope Paul VI, Vatican (full image in comments below)


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On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 took flight to the moon. In the days that preceded the launch, the U.S. scrambled to pull together the messages from Earth that would be left behind on the moon. This is the Apollo Goodwill Disc, and it was engineered to last long after the U.S. flag was destroyed.

This silicon disc contains etched letters (scanned and reduced 200x) from the leaders of the world’s nations. This is one of the discs produced by Sprague and retained by a Sprague manager; a second resides in the Smithsonian, and a third rests on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility, deposited there by Buzz Aldrin.

(Does anyone know if other builds remain intact? A Sprague press release says that of the handful of discs made, one was given to President Nixon and one to President Johnson).

It is a tricky subject matter for photography. I wanted to capture the angle-dependendent iridescence of the semiconductor thin films. The overhead light source reflects off the leather seat cushion, revealing the shift from green to purple that occurs at oblique angles.

This comes from the early days of the semiconductor industry, when Apollo consumed 50% of global production, and wafers were just 2” wide (the ultimate disc was cropped around the 1.5” metallized ring and placed in a aluminum case).

The concept of using lithographic thin films to create a long-term alternative to microfiche was novel at the time, earning Sprague a patent (#3,607,347). I used those techniques to create a multi-colored Devo hat on a chip I designed at HP in 1988.

The story of the rushed creation of the disc is fascinating, as are the messages embedded in this interplanetary time capsule.

The concept started in June, 1969, and it was a politically charged project, in the midst of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. On June 27, NASA telephoned the state department, and got the unprecedented permission to contact the foreign chiefs of state to deposit a message on the moon. This was 19 days before launch. They were asked to compose and send typed and scribed letters to the U.S. (they came by telegram and mail).

But NASA did not know how they would store the messages so that they could last thousands of years in the harsh temperatures, solar radiation, and cosmic rays on the lunar surface. So they approached the supplier of some of the most advanced technology on Apollo – the nascent semiconductor industry.

Sprague manufactured 53,000 components on the Apollo 11 spacecraft and many more for the ground support equipment. The engineers chose silicon for the storage medium because of the density of storage and the stability of silicon over temperature in a vacuum.

“Crash course is an understatement. We had almost no time to put this together!”
— John Sprague, head of the semiconductor division

NASA officials delivered the goodwill letters on the July 4 holiday, and Sprague finished the first printing on July 5 at 3 a.m. Each letter was photographed, and optically reduced to the point where each letter was ¼ the width of a hair. The image was transferred to a glass photomask which was then used to image the silicon, much like the early days of IC manufacturing.

“It was a rush to get it done. We slept on lab benches for two days in a row.”
— Ray Carswell, Sprague Engineer

However, on July 9, the company was asked to start over and create a new disc with eight additional messages. It was completed and sent to Houston at 3:30 a.m. on July 11, five days before launch.

In the comments below are some of the messages that caught my eye, including the Vatican and Estonia (recognized despite their Soviet occupation at the time).

The letters were written independently at a historic epoch in exploration abroad and conflict at home. Most of them reference God or peace on Earth.

“The Silicon disc represents a historic time when many nations looked beyond their differences to come together to achieve this historic first.”
Charlie Duke, Apollo 16 moonwalker

jimheid, solerena, Jeffrey Wallace, and 13 other people added this photo to their favorites.

View 7 more comments

  1. jurvetson 43 months ago | reply

    David Seaton - wow, you have really gone off on a sour binger of late, even in poetic verse, oh so terse.

    Reshma Beeranthbail — certainly. Our generation will see suborbital and then orbital tourism (space hotels with better windows and toilets than the ISS), a tourist flight around the moon (Simonyi already bought his ticket), and a mission to Mars. With reusability of the launch vehicle, the cost of LEO insertion plummets, changing that cost assumption from the Apollo days. In the near term, you will see a new proliferation of Earth observation satellites (bringing frequency of coverage to the scale of hours not weeks). And the robots keep getting better. For now, keep your fingers crossed for the Aug 5 landing of Curiosity (I'll be at JPL with my son for that). The latest JPL video should quicken the pulse of even the cold war curmudgeons... =)

    P.S. The "Goodwill Hunting" patent, filed on August 4, 1969, offers an interesting peek into the early days of the semiconductor industry:

    "In the case of transparent films, the color results from the elimination or subtraction of particular frequencies by interference. Thus, with white light illumination of the unit, light having a wavelength .lambda. will be blanked out, or subtracted from, the reflected radiation depending upon film thickness. For the silicon-silicon dioxide system 900-1,000 Angstroms gives a characteristic blue-purple color when exposed to white light, while other colors of the spectrum results with thicker coatings.

    In a specific example, 74 printed sheets of approximately 8-1/2" x 11" size were reduced approximately 200 times in size and stored in a 0.21 square area of a single 1- 1/2-inch diameter, 14 mil thick oxidized slice of silicon. Each printed sheet was first copied by electrostatic means, and a 1 to 1 positive transparency then made by means of the Diazo process. Groups of approximately 6 to 9 of the transparencies were then mounted in a side-by-side relationship and photographically reduced by 20 X and recorded on high resolution photographic plates by means of a photographic system.

    The initial composite plates were then further reduced by about 10 times and composed in a side-by-side relation on a single high resolution photographic plate to provide a positive image mask. This was accomplished by photographically exposing each initial composite negative at selected coordinates of the final photographic plate by means of a step and repeat camera; that is, a different composite plate was exposed at each step of the camera. The final composed image was then transferred to the oxidized silicon slice by photolithographic techniques.

    A 1,000 Angstrom thick surface film of silicon dioxide was first thermally grown on the slice by conventional semiconductor techniques of heating the slice to approximately 1,100.degree. C in an oxygen atmosphere. The slice was then coated with very thin KTFR photoresist, for example, a 5,000 Angstrom thick coating. The final composite was then disposed over the photoresist and the combination exposed to ultra violet light in the conventional manner. Thereafter, the photoresist was washed away in the developed or that is, nonpolymerized areas so as to provide fine-line openings in the resist coating in conformance with the printed characters of the original documents.

    The unit was then treated with an ammonium fluoride buffered solution of hydrofluoric acid to etch through the silicon oxide exposed in the openings of the photoresist coating. The solution is chosen to rapidly etch the thin film, and to not attack or only very slowly etch the substrate. Finally, the unit was completed by stripping the photoresist with sulfuric acid or the like. This provided a silicon slice having approximately 74 images of the original documents within a 0.21-inch square area of the slice.

    There is a fundamental limitation due to diffraction scattering of light such that images down to about one-half micron can only be formed with ultraviolet light. For finer-line geometries and greater reduction factors, electron beam techniques can be employed. For example, the image can be written in highly reduced form on suitable photoresist by a controlled electron beam, or the beam can be used directly on the thin film to remove or cut the film, for example by evaporation of a metal film."

  2. seatonsnet 43 months ago | reply

    Steve Jurvetson
    It comes from living in Spain right now, it's enough to make a body bilious... Sorry.

    The science that really excites now me is the evolutionary sciences: discovering who we really are.

    I see people walking down the street obsessively, talking, texting and tweeting, simultaneously in contact with their entire social support groups. And in them I see our far off ancestors, running naked in small groups through the tall grass of the African savanna, chirping, grunting and twittering to each other, searching each other's body language and every facial expression. I get excited with technology that makes us more human as we discover what being human is. As we learn about ourselves we may learn what we really need and what we could dispense with.

    The thing about the moonshot is that I am old enough to really have been marked by the Cold War, which practically destroyed honest thought for decades. The moonshot, for me is kind of spoiled by that context. I resent that the poetry of the moon was defaced basically for that reason, to top the soviets.

  3. Reshma Beeranthbail 43 months ago | reply

    It's not even about space exploration. It could be anything. When will our entire planet gather together once again as a family and pause for a brief moment and watch in wonder and awe at something amazing, incomprehensible, and beyond our wildest imagination? Ooooh!

  4. solerena 43 months ago | reply

    Reshma Beeranthbail yes!!! feel the same... new advances in science (physics) - new wave of technology - something terrific and radical in space area!!! the impossible is possible! quite real, actually... hope our politicians and chess masters will not fail us here... but build their own legacy around this amazing possibilities!

  5. seatonsnet 43 months ago | reply

    Space is cold and far away... we are surrounded by so many suffering humans... I love the moon far away, pulling at the ocean... her shimmering glamor... I don't want to see her with her makeup off and her hair in curlers, squeezing her pimples.

  6. bike-R 43 months ago | reply

    Any pics of the plaque that they had to put over the one on the moon that had the wrong date on it? Like the LM was packed tight in it's shroud allready and no way to get to it's legs so Armstrong put a plaque over theold one ? Any replicas out there?


  7. A Tout Le Monde 43 months ago | reply

    Steve, Thanks for sharing this!

  8. ukweli 43 months ago | reply

    So the disc is about the size of a 50 cent piece, and rests in an aluminum case. It makes me curious about the case and its situation. Will the case be gradually covered over with moondust? Were any steps taken to make it more noticable by anyone who might happen by? I am imagining a very small aluminum box in a very large sea of dust.

  9. ukweli 43 months ago | reply

    I particularly liked this part of the message from Ivory Coast:
    "I especially wish that he (the astronaut) would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are, when viewed from up there." -Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of Ivory Coast

    Despite the unwholesome motives for the US push for the moon landing, it was an infinitely better use of that effort and money than developing ever greater weapons. An event that was entirely peaceful in nature, and could bring the imagination of all mankind to a broader plane of possibility--how can we measure the value of this?

  10. jurvetson 43 months ago | reply

    yes... and to your question, it was in a case, and the case was in a special white beta cloth pouch.

    The pouch also contains a gold olive branch, Apollo 1 patch, and two commemorative Soviet medals to honor Yuri Gagarin (first person in space) and Vladimir Komorov (who died when his Soyuz parachutes failed to deploy).

    It rests on the lunar surface like a goodie bag. =)

  11. solerena 43 months ago | reply

    Nice to hear this...spasibo:)

  12. jurvetson 35 months ago | reply

    And thanks to Spaceaholic and his machining master friend Mark Wells, I have an Apollo 11 case for the disc, with the custom 11-sided polygon:


  13. jutrased 31 months ago | reply

    Hi Jurvetson
    I just came across this and wanted to let you know of at least one other disc owned by the daughter of someone who worked on the project at Sprague. I tried photographing it for her and never got the beautiful results you have. One difference is that her disc has the Vatican image on the left, indicating it is one of the final versions. picasaweb.google.com/jutrased3/Look#5905811211713803090. My collectSPACE ID is jutrased.


  14. nameev686@ymail.com 26 months ago | reply

    How much were you able to pick this up for? Just curious about what the value of something like this is.

  15. jurvetson 26 months ago | reply

    priceless ;-)

  16. nameev686@ymail.com 26 months ago | reply

    Well mine is too. I inherited it. I know they are extremely rare. Mine is in excellent shape. I've been looking for some for sale to compare it with.

  17. jurvetson 26 months ago | reply

    Oh cool. If your user name is your email, I'd be happy to send you the specific info I have on prices. I know of one other disc, but it's a later prototype run. Does yours have the vatican letter?

  18. nameev686@ymail.com 26 months ago | reply

    Yes that is my email, if you would like to email me. I can also send you pics through there. I do believe it has the Vatican letter.

  19. jurvetson 12 months ago | reply

    reposting the first comment I made above, now hidden by flickr's comment display limit "upgrade":

    Buzz Aldrin’s signature on the back:

    And the letters (in a different light - I got this with a handheld DSLR with 100mm lens):
    Apollo Disc Closeup

    • President Chiang Kai-Shek, China: “It is our sincere desire that the astronauts, upon the date of their landing on the moon, will have made a significant contribution to a world utopia and peace through the universe.”


    • Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethopia: “This marvelous feat is a proof of the gigantic strides man has made in the field of science and technology. We are fully confident that this great milestone in man's search for the unknown will give the American genius and the valiant American astronauts greater encouragement in their further probe of the solar system.“

    • Queen Elizabeth II, Great Britain: “On behalf of the British people I salute the skill and courage which have brought man to the moon. May this endeavour increase the knowledge and well-being of mankind.”

    • Indira Gandhi, India: “On this unique occasion when man traverses outer space to set foot on Earth's nearest neighbor, Moon, I send my greetings and good wishes to the brave astronauts who have launched on this great venture. I fervently hope that this event will usher in an era of peaceful endeavor for all mankind.”

    • Greece: “I am particularly proud of speaking on behalf of the Greek nation, whose ancestors had the privilege to be forerunners in the philosophical thought and scientific research, which first penetrated the universe. It is a happy coincidence that the amazing program of man's first flight to space, which has been so magnificent fulfilled today, bears the name of the Greek God Apollo”

    Italy may disagree: “The courage and the technology of the United States of America have brought to our satellite this message of the Head of the Italian Nation which prides itself to number amongst its sons Galileo Galilei, whose genius paved the ways for modern science.”

    • Guyana Prime Minister: “We do not know what shall be the judgment of history but we would be well pleased if on some later day when this is read, it is said of us that we strove greatly to advance the dignity of all men.”

    • Libera seems a bit unclear on the mission objectives… President 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.”

    Mexico, President Ordaz: “It is an honor for Mexico, with this most modest symbolic testimony, to form part of the event which for the first time takes man to a soil away from his home planet. And, in doing so, Mexico extends most enthusiastic congratulations to the dedicated, gallant astronauts and to the scientists and technicians, as well as, in a broader sense, to the American people and their Government for this undertaking that, hitherto, only had precedents in the realm of imagination.

    In 1492, the discovery of the American Continent, transformed geography and the course of human events. Today, conquest of ultra terrestrial space-with its attendant unknowns-recreates our perspectives and enhances our paradigms.

    Mexico, while expressing its hope that this human accomplishment will result in good for mankind and that all the peoples on Earth will participate in its fulfillment with clear conscience of their common destiny, for the development of this new stage, offers not a power nor richness it does not possess by the moral heritage decanted from its own history: an unquenchable thirst for material and spiritual improvement and an unyielding faith in the supremacy of reason and justice as a way and an inspiration for human conduct which now has attained a new far reaching responsibility.”

    • Pope Paul VI, Vatican: Psalms 8 and then “To the glory of the name of God who gives such power to men, we ardently pray for this wonderful beginning.”

    • Vietnam President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu “This memorable feat should bring to mankind both a sense of pride and humility: pride, because human beings by their intelligence and perseverance are now able to get beyond this earth to which they have seemed to be bound; humility, because the quarrels which divide men on the earth look so petty in the context of our vast universe.”

    • President Richard M. Nixon, United States: “The journey of the astronauts is more than a technological achievement; it is a reaching-out of the human spirit. It lifts our sights; it demonstrates that magnificent conceptions can be made real. They inspire us and at the same time they teach us true humility. What could bring home to us more the limitations of the human scale than the hauntingly beautiful picture of our earth seen from the moon?”

    And for the Baltic States, the letters came from the Consul Generals in the U.S. who continued to serve during the period of Soviet occupation.

    Estonia: “The people of Estonia join those who hope and work for freedom and a better world.”

    • Latvia: “On behalf of the Latvian nation I salute the first men on the Moon and pray for their safe return. May their achievement contribute to world peace and restoration of freedom to all nations.”

    The complete set of messages, in plain text, are on wikipedia, and in the book dedicated to the Apollo Goodwill Disc. Here's a video intro to the book.

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