The Curious History Of Music In Space

By Ruth Joffre

In 1977, scientists at NASA launched a “Golden Record” into space; it rode aboard the Voyager probes 1 and 2. This record — curated by Carl Sagan and designed to introduce the human race to extraterrestrial beings — includes five-plus hours of recorded audio containing (among other things) whale songs, panpipes, chanting, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto №2 in F major, boasting a rhythmic first movement and virtuosic trumpet; it’s a fine counterpart to Louis Armstrong’s great jazz standard “Melancholy Blues.”

Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” represents rock on the record; Sagan attempted to secure the rights to the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” but their label (EMI) refused in what must be the single most shortsighted decision in all of music history. (Imagine listening to Voyager’s Golden Record millennia in the future and trying to reconstruct human history without the Beatles — it can’t be done.)

In defiance of the overwhelming classical presence on Voyager’s Golden Record, rock ’n’ roll has gone on to have a rich and complex history in space, thanks in large part to astromusicians on the International Space Station. Canadian astronaut and former ISS Commander Col. Chris Hadfield, (and author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,) brought an acoustic guitar to outer space and regularly played it in the station’s cupola, performing via live video feed with Ed Robertson, lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies, and with his own band, Bandella. Hadfield even recorded a music video of himself floating in the ISS — a performance of, what else, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” (With the lyrics changed to suit the occasion.)

Hadfield was retiring from command and made this tribute as a way of saying goodbye to the station he’d loved (Col. Hadfield had logged 4,000 hours in space). His album, Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can, released in 2015, represents one of a small handful of recordings — but not the first — written in and inspired by space.

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In fact, humans have been making music in space since December 16, 1965, when two astronauts on Gemini 6 — Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford — played “Jingle Bells” during re-entry with a harmonica and bells hidden on the shuttle. NASA’s psychologists subsequently realized that listening to music improved astronauts’ mental health and in-flight coping skills and began allowing musical instruments on missions, including a guitar, a saxophone, keyboard, flutes, and even a didgeridoo that astronaut Don Petit fashioned out of a vacuum tube. Like Matt Damon in The Martian, real astronauts are nothing if not resourceful.

SI Neg. 2000-1384. Date: na. NASA caption, 'The G-4C space suits to be worn by the Gemini IV flight crew, Astronauts James A. McDivitt and Edward H. White II, hang in the suit storage area at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center, Cape Kennedy, Florida'; May 28, 1965. Credit: unknown (Smithsonian Institution)
“The G-4C space suits to be worn by the Gemini IV flight crew, Astronauts James A. McDivitt and Edward H. White II.” Courtesy of NASA

Musicians in space have since made appearances at live concerts with U2 and recorded a duet of Bach’s “Bourée” and Jethro Tull’s 1969 instrumental of the same name. Ron McNair, an accomplished saxophonist and NASA astronaut, worked with composer Jean Michel Jarre on a song McNair would’ve performed aboard the Challenger, a solo that would’ve been the first musical composition written for and played in space had that mission not ended in disaster, exploding midair just 73 seconds into its flight. In the wake of the tragedy Jarre adapted the solo into a haunting six-minute song that doubles as both a requiem for McNair and a reminder of space’s awesome power: as we listen to Jarre’s saxophone, we’re simultaneously mourning our insignificance and reaching to the stars in our desire to understand.

This yearning for the cosmos has been inspiring musicians for centuries and has resulted in space themed music as beautiful and as varied as composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Air’s spacious and sexy album Moon Safari, Elton John’s pervasive single “Rocket Man,” and the Golden Record’s “Music of the Spheres,” a translation of Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi, as realized and recorded by Laurie Spiegel, a pioneer of electronic-music. Her piece is titled after a theory of music both originated by ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras and elaborated on by Aristotle in Metaphysics.

Its central tenet is that the universe expresses itself numerically in patterns and in harmonies dictated in the rotations of heavenly spheres — of stars, planets, and celestial bodies, as their motion produces notes on an astronomical scale. In other words, the universe is singing, and in launching Voyager into space we’re attempting to sing along.

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The Venus crosses the surface of the Sun. Courtesy of NASA

Musician John Legend recently took this a step further by performing a duet with the actual stars: R Scuti, HR 1217, KIC 1162150, and KIC 3749404 (as they’re officially known).

What could possible make this better? Knowing that this data was collected by Voyagers 1 and 2 during their long journey, hurtling through the voids, far outside our solar system. It’s humanity singing to the universe alongside the universe’s own melody. It remains if not the best empirically then certainly my favorite of all the space music we’ve created.

Humanity’s single greatest piece of space music, however, might very well be our radio transmissions, if communicating with other entities besides our earth-bound brethren is the metric. Inventor and radio pioneer Marconi sent his first transatlantic signals in Morse Code in 1901, and since then radio’s neverending stream of information has been transmitting nonstop, expanding in every direction at the speed of light like a century-long caul of sound.

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Barcelona, Spain. Courtesy of NASA

Marconi’s Morse messages in the meantime have traveled 115 light years, which means they’ve already left our solar system, sailed straight past Proxima Centauri, and reached a handful of exoplanets that might support life (in contrast Voyager 1 has traveled less than .002% of a light year). It’s possible that if intelligent life does indeed exist elsewhere in this galaxy, then they’ve already heard Marconi’s message and might be crafting a response. I think about that a lot.

When I look up at the stars, I wonder if they can hear us and if, when their radios point in our direction, these possible extraterrestrials discern the differences between the raucous ’80s, the grunge-fueled ’90s, and the latest, most cacophonous century that’s rolling out before us, like a wave. I wonder, too, if in the not-so-distant future these extraterrestrials will be able to hear themselves in all the space-themed music, and if they’ll smile a little and turn up the radio.

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