A Brief History of Making Music in Space

The Atlantic

Colonel Chris Hadfield recently recorded the first original song written for and performed on the International Space Station. He joins a long and venerable tradition of astromusicians.

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield plays Christmas carols while orbiting over the Mediterranean. (@Cmdr_Hadfield/Twitter)

Astronaut Chris Hadfield has a new song out, a sweet Christmas melody laid over some solid guitar strumming. But if you listen carefully, you'll hear something else: a soft whir of fans in the background. Why? Because this song wasn't recorded in the constructed silence of a recording studio, but on the International Space Station as it orbited Earth at about 17,000 miles per hour, some 260 miles overhead.

It seems that this is the first song written specifically for the International Space Station to be recorded there. But that's a pretty specific accomplishment -- and that's because humans have been playing music in space for about five decades. The first song we have a recording of from space was also a Christmas tune, this one a bit better known: Jingle Bells. Astronauts Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford snuck some bells and a harmonica (now housed at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum) onto Gemini 6 in 1965. As they prepared to re-enter Earth's atmosphere on December 16, they played a little joke on those listening down below.

The prank, captured in the video below, is a little hard to make out verbatim, but Schirra's later recollections give the joke's flavor. He wrote: "We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit.... Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon.... You just might let me pick up that thing.... I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit." And then they began to play:

Stafford told Smithsonian Magazine in 2005 that it was Schirra who originally came up with the idea. "He could play the harmonica, and we practiced two or three times before we took off, but of course we didn't tell the guys on the ground....We never considered singing, since I couldn't carry a tune in a bushelbasket."

It seems that no one heard the recording of that moment-- the first musical instruments played in space, according to Margaret A. Weitekamp, a curator at the Air and Space Museum -- for decades, but last year a YouTube user by the name buzzlab, and identified by Boing Boing as "Patrick," ferreted it out of NASA's Media Resource Center in Houston Texas, who provided him with 33 hours of audio files from the mission with a note that promised, "It's in there somewhere."

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On the International Space Station and Mir, where astronauts have lived for long periods and therefore have had more leisure time, instruments have been fixtures of space-station living. On a space station, NASA explains, the instruments don't sound any different, but they are all thoroughly checked to make sure they will not threaten the safety of the astronauts (if they were to, say, emit some noxious gases, or perhaps combust). Astronauts too have to adapt to playing without gravity, figuring out clever ways of holding themselves in place while they strum or tap the keys.

Over the years of space-station living there have been many firsts: Cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko wrote 20 songs while living on Mir in the late '80s though it seems he did not record them there. Hadfield brought a modified, foldable electric guitar to Mir in the '90s, and he and astro-guitarist Thomas Reiter used to play Russian folk ballads and Beatles songs. Several astronauts have shlepped keyboards with them (such as Carl Walz, pictured at right), Don Petit turned a vacuum tube into a workable didgeridoo, and two astronauts, Cady Coleman and Ellen Ochoa, have both brought flutes with them into space. In 2011, recording of Coleman playing Bach's Bouree was merged with another from Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull, for the first ever Earth-space duet.

But there is one first that was planned and never happened, and that story is a reminder of the tough path that space exploration has sometimes been. And that is the story of Ron McNair, who was the first person to bring an instrument into space (not counting the bells and harmonica of the Gemini pranksters). In 1984 he brought his saxophone with him on a shuttle mission. The tape of that music was sadly recorded over.

Following that trip, composer Jean Michel Jarre wrote a piece for McNair to debut on his next flight -- the 1986 Challenger mission. It would have been the first piece ever composed for and debuted in space, and McNair's solo would have been fed to an Earth concert over a live feed.

After the loss of the Challenger's crew, saxophonist Kirk Whalun recorded the work, renamed Ron's Piece. Here is that song, the first that never was:





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