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Photo by NASA/Robert Markowitz, public domain.

Astronaut Paolo Nespoli recently recorded his spoken voice for use on his Wikipedia article—a small step for him, but a giant leap for the Wikimedia movement. This milestone is the first time content has been made in space specifically for Wikipedia.

Paolo, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, made the recording while orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station for the Italian Space Agency mission VITA.

How did an astronaut contribute to Wikipedia while traveling through space at an average speed of 27,724 kilometres per hour (17,227 mph)? That involves the collaborative handiwork of several people back here on Earth.

In July this year, I approached Marco Trovatello (User:mtrova), Communication Officer with ESA’s European Astronaut Centre, after seeing his excellent efforts to have ESA media released under open licence. I asked him to work with me on a recording made on the ISS. Marco jumped at the idea, and immediately agreed to help. As you can imagine, astronauts have busy schedules, but Marco was able to make all the necessary arrangements, working with his ESA colleagues to get the recording scheduled and the files transferred back to Earth (two of them: one in English, the other in Paolo’s native Italian). He then uploaded them to Wikimedia Commons, where they are now available for anyone to use, freely, under an open licence (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO), as well as being used on Wikipedia, and Wikidata.

Photo by NASA/Crew of STS-132, public domain.

In space, no one can hear you scream… but now everyone can hear your voice

Why is it important for Paolo—and others—to record their voices for Wikipedia and its sister projects? It helps us learn the canonical pronunciation of someone’s name. (I know that in my own family, different branches pronounce “Mabbett” differently). Asking our subjects to say a few more words besides their name also gives a fuller impression of what their voice sounds like, and that helps our readers to recognise them, for example, if they hear them on the radio.

The project was conceived at Wikimedia meetup in London in 2012. I suggested that we ought to include people’s voices on Wikipedia, and on the train home worked up some ideas, which I put into a blog post. I then contacted everyone I knew who had had a Wikipedia article written about them, and some kindly made recordings to get things started.

Since then, a small group of volunteers, including myself, have worked with many article subjects to add hundreds of recordings in 24 languages. They feature actors, sportspeople, Nobel-laureate scientists, authors, Eurovision Song Contest contestants, Wikimedians, and even another astronaut—Charlie Duke of NASA, who once walked on the moon, though his recording was made on Earth. I even persuaded the BBC to donate hundreds of clips from their radio programmes. It was the first time BBC content had been released under an open licence.

But we still need lots more recordings, in lots more languages—and you can help with this. Ask anyone you know who has a Wikipedia article (or a Wikidata item) to make a recording as set out on the project page. Most recordings run from 10–20 seconds, which is not a lot to ask of even very busy people. You can record them on a mobile phone, but do try to find somewhere quiet to cut down on background noise.

Who knows, maybe someone in space will listen to your recording.

Andy Mabbett (User:Pigsonthewing), Wikimedian