A Musical Space

Music can be a great way to relax and unwind. Many people play an instrument, are part of a band or enjoying listening to their favourite song on the radio or TV.  The iPod generation have music available to them at any time with their portable devices.  Enjoying music however, is not an activity which is confined to limits of the planet Earth. Music has always been part of the Space Exploration program from the Gemini program in the 1960s to the latest success story of landing Curiosity onto Mars.

image of guitar keyboard on ISS

Image Dan Burbank and Anton Shkaplero making music onboard the ISS (Image credit: NASA)

 

The first occurrence of music being made in space was during the Gemini 6 mission in 1965. The Gemini 6 and 7 spacecrafts were both launched in December 1965; they paved the way for spacecrafts to arrive in the same orbit and to dock with one another. These became the first spacecrafts to almost touch, the closest point being only 30cm apart. After their successful close encounter, Gemini 6 began to drift away, but then the crew reported an unusual satellite orbiting the Earth to mission control. They said it looked like it was about to enter the Earth and the pilot appeared to be wearing a red suit. Before mission control could digest this information the sound of ‘Jingle bells’ played through the radio. Pilot Thomas Stafford and commanding Pilot Walter Schirra played the festive surprise on a harmonica accompanied by actual bells, both of which have since been donated to the Smithsonian National air and Space museum.

image of gemini spacecraft

Image Gemini 7 seen from Gemini 6 during Rendezvous before spying a “mysterious object” (Image credit: NASA)

 

Since then many astronauts have brought instruments into space with them, including many crews onboard the International Space Station. The range of instruments played includes guitars, a keyboard, a ukulele, saxophone and a flute, and even a didgeridoo! From astronaut reports, playing the specific instrument does not differ too much from Earth, however how you hold and handle the instrument does require an extra dimension of difficulty. Straps to keep feet in place make playing an instrument much easier.  Cady Coleman a NASA astronaut onboard the space station until May of last year brought 4 flutes to space, a penny-whistle and an old Irish flute from members of the Chieftains, a flute belonging to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and her own. After spending 159 days in space, Cady built up many hours playing music in space. She even performed a duet with Ian Anderson whilst up there.

Its not just the astronauts playing music in space, mission control has been playing regular wake up music to astronauts since the Apollo program. The Gemini astronauts were treated to some musical interludes during their times in space but not specifically to wake them in the morning. This trend has continued to present day often with the musicians also sending a voice message. The whole idea of wake-up music is to play something inspiring energetic. Music can have been picked in advance by the crew or often by friends and family. However, on the last space shuttle missions to the ISS a competition was held by NASA for the public to vote for the song to be played on their last day in space. “Blue Sky” by Big Head Todd and the Monsters was the clear winner and it was played onboard STS-133.

More recently, NASA’s latest success story the Curiosity rover which landed on Mars in August of this year has broadcast the first piece of music from the surface of the Red Planet. The song written by Will.i.am for the occasion is called ‘Reach for the stars’. The song includes lyrics like “why do they say the sky is the limit, when I’ve seen the foot prints on the moon”. The orchestral meets auto-tune piece of music may not be to everyone’s musical tastes but it nevertheless marks a milestone in Mars Exploration, although without speakers Curiosity did not actually play it on Mars.

 

 

Mars may be the first planet to broadcast music back to Earth, but two satellites launched back in 1977 have onboard many pieces of music and sounds to represent our planet Earth. The Voyager mission launched 2 identical space craft to explore the gas giant planets. However more than 30 years on, the Voyager space craft are headed towards the outer edges of our Solar system and will never return to Earth. Just in case either of these satellites happen to stumble upon any other life forms both carry a gold disc with music, sounds, greetings and pictures as a time capsule representing Earth. If an alien life form were to find this disc they can enjoy the sounds of Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Mozart and the Azerbaijan bagpipes along with many more tracks.

image of Voyager gold disc and cover

Voyager gold disc and cover (Image credit: Wikipedia combined by M.Redpath)

As well as sending music to space, music has been purposefully been beamed up into space. In 2001, a group of Russian teenagers selected the broadcast content to be sent to several different stars. This Active SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) stunt was the first that included music. The message included seven compositions performed on a Theremin (An electronic instrument controlled by moving hands between two antennae). These messages are due to arrive at their target stars at the earliest 2047, let’s hope the Theremin still sounds good then! In 2008, NASA followed suit beaming the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” song in the direction of the North Star. Sir Paul McCartney sent his love to the aliens as well.

Music and space have another link, other than just sending it up or back down. Composers are producing music inspired by the sounds of space. As probes such as the Voyager have travelled passed the planets they have recorded signals or radio waves. These can then be translated into audible sound. Lightening on Earth for example sounds like a whistle. These sounds recorded from the different planets and celestial objects have an eerie feel and even though in space no-one can hear you scream, with the right equipment you can really here the planets sing!

Music and space really have had a close link through the space program right through until today, providing a touch of home comforts for the astronauts on prolonged periods outside the planet, to inspiring a new genre of cosmic-electro music. The link between the both music and space is certainly set to continue into the future and out of this world.

(Article by Martina Redpath, Education Support Officer)