Before a man was put into space, even before we fired a dog out there, we sent up music. In October 1957, the satellite Sputnik was the first man-made object to achieve Earth orbit. It was a metal ball, 58 cm in diameter, with a radio transmitter and a single oscillator that went ‘beep beep beep beep’. It was to be heard throughout the world and recognised as a sign of the USSR’s dominance of the cosmos; a buzzing flea in America’s ear. Man’s first music in space was avant-garde electronica. In 1957 everybody could hum the tune.
On 4 February 2008 NASA broadcast ‘Across the Universe’ by the Beatles into space, perhaps in the hope that little green men would re-evaluate the Fab Four’s swansong album. It’s going to be a while before anyone hears it though: the nearest galaxy to Earth is Andromeda, which is two million light years away. That’s the equivalent of ten million Mojo magazine Beatles covers. (I’m disappointed with the choice of Lennon filler over McCartney prime cut — it smacks of a committee decision. Democracy doesn’t suit music; that’s how we ended up with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as the best song ever recorded.)
The Voyager space probe was also musical. Just in case aliens have vinyl-record players, the 1977 spacecraft came with a gold disk that boasted a ninety-minute selection of music from around the world. This included works by Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mozart and no less than three contributions from Johan Sebastian Bach. It’s fair to say that in 40,000 years time, when Voyager is expected to reach our nearest star, the Alpha Centaurians won’t be partying like its 41,999. However, if they make it through all that Bach they do get to kick back with Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’. Louis Armstrong is thoughtfully included for that ‘morning after’ moods.
The USSR put the first man into space in 1961; the Americans got there a month later. NASA’s early Mercury missions were short, busy affairs, and it wasn’t until the longer Gemini flights that the astronauts needed time to relax and sleep. Mission Control would broadcast ‘wake up’ music to them over the communications link. The occupants of Gemini 6 were woken by a version of ‘Hello Dolly’ with new lyrics by Jack Jones (‘Quick, open the airlock I want to get out!’). Gemini 6 is also notable for another ‘space music’ first. On 15 December 1965, astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford claimed to have sighted a UFO. The object turned out to be ‘Santa Claus’ and the lads performed a quick version of ‘Jingle Bells’ on a stowed away harmonica and sleigh bells. You guys!
I’m looking for something a little more insightful, more personal. These men were the first to gaze on Earth from outside our atmosphere. What did they themselves choose for their soundtrack?
The first compact audio cassettes were mass-marketed in the mid-1960s. Cassette machines were taken on the early Apollo flights. The astronauts used them to record observations. Apollo 8 was the first mission to include on-board music. It is a mission often overshadowed by Apollo 17, but it was an astonishing achievement. Spacemen Borman, Lovell and Anders were the first to break free of Earth’s orbit and hurtle around the moon — an achievement even more remarkable when you consider that nobody has escaped Earth’s gravitational field since 1972. Like many subsequent astronauts, they chose country and western, specifically Buck Owens, who recorded the music on the cassette especially for the mission.
Larry McGlynn lives in New England, USA, and collects items that have been flown into space. Among his collection is a tape cassette that belonged to Gene Cernan and was flown around the moon on board Apollo 10. Gene Cernan made the tape with his friend Al Bishop; they sat on Al’s carpet choosing the vinyl that best suited Gene’s forthcoming journey. ‘The quality of the tape reflects that type of early private recording,’ says Larry. It has miscues, skips and clicks that an older record album would make on a turntable. That is what makes the tape so good for historic purposes. These two men took the time to sit, choose and record music for a flight to the Moon.’
The cassette features themed choices such as ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ and `Moon River’, as well as six songs by Doris Day, seven by the Kingston Trio, and a bit of Acker Bilk.
‘When I listen to the tape it brings me back to the times of my youth when this music was popular during the 1960s,’ says Larry. ‘I think about the tape doing its job of providing entertainment to the Apollo 10 crew while travelling further than man has journeyed before or since. I also think that Gene Cernan had some pretty good taste in popular music back then.’
If you only know the name of one astronaut then you know the name of Neil Armstrong. If you know anything else about him it would be that he is something of an enigma. Public appearances are rare, and interviews are like gold dust. We do know that Neil Armstrong is a musician; he performed Dixieland jazz on his cornet as a child and plays ragtime piano. On his return from the moon he requested a ukulele in his quarantine quarters. We also know that for his voyage to the moon he chose ‘Music from the Moon’ by Dr Samuel Hoffman. The 1947 piece heavily features an early electronic instrument called the Theremin.
Andrew Smith is the author of Moondust, an excellent portrait of the twelve men who have walked upon the moon. ‘It shows how eccentric he is,’ Smith says of Armstrong’s very particular musical taste. ‘I just thought it was funny. It made me laugh and laugh; this instrument that we associate with sci-fi B-movies from the 1950s — that he should be taking that off into space with him.’
The Theremin produces an ‘alien’ portamento sound by having an oscillator controlled by two antennae. The movement of the player’s hands, without actually touching the instrument, controls the pitch. Portamento is the sound of one note sliding to another. It’s interesting to highlight that this effect has often been used to evoke the sound of space; think of the theme tunes to Doctor Who or Star Trek. It’s possibly something to do with the fact that the tones slide between the notes in our conventional musical scales, making the sound odd or unnerving.
Perhaps, despite his subsequent modesty, Armstrong saw himself as an enigmatic sci-fi hero? By being so reclusive, he leaves himself to our imaginations; we can believe anything we want of him. Armstrong took a dramatic and strange music into space that matched our sense of wonder at this new frontier. He dutifully fulfilled our expectations.
The steel guitar is another portamento instrument that has evoked the sound of space. It was used by the legendary pop producer Joe Meek on his 1959 science-fiction masterpiece ‘I Hear a New World’. Brian Eno made the connection between the spatial glide of the steel guitar and the country music chosen by astronauts, and had collaborator Daniel Lanois deploy the instrument on the soundtrack to the 1989 space-flight documentary For All Mankind. ‘I thought [their choice of country music] said something interesting about how they saw themselves, which was as frontiersmen,’ Brian Eno is quoted as saying in Moondust. ‘I also wanted to make something that didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere, that wasn’t rooted in the earth; I wanted the roll without the rock I guess! All the harmonic pieces I wrote for the film have a kind of unearthly country-and-western feel.’
The choice of country and western could also tell us about where these men came from. It is interesting to note how many of the 1960s astronauts hailed from small-town America rather then cities. This would also explain why their music choices fail to capture the 1960s zeitgeist. The astronauts were test- and fighter-pilots drafted from the air force — the military tends to recruit outside city centres. The straightforward grit of country music is the natural choice for these determined, aspirational, small-town men. This ‘grit’ is personified by Buzz Aldrin, the ‘astronaut’s astronaut’ and the second man to walk on the moon. He declined to take any music into space claiming that he would be too busy. Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, took Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’.
If the Apollo 11 mission is often portrayed as dark and serious then Apollo 12 is its antithesis. Astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean joked their way to the moon. Their cassette includes `Louisiana Man’ by Rusty and Doug, ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glenn Campbell, ‘Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies and ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ by Dusty Springfield. Apparently Pete chose the country and Al chose the pop. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to Alan Bean twice. In 2001 I released a single called ‘Alan Bean’ (complete with pedal steel and Theremin) which deals with his life after NASA. After leaving the space programme, Alan devoted his life to painting pictures of himself and his fellow astronauts on the Moon. Alan is a man who is acutely aware that the only people we have sent out of this world are test-pilots, and that astronauts have difficulties in explaining how it ‘feels’ to walk on the Moon. They can explain altitude and landing procedure but find it harder to emote. Alan realised he was unique; he was the only Moonwalker who felt compelled to tell his story though his creativity. ‘I was handed a gift that has never been given to any other artist in history’, Bean says. ‘No other artist has had a planet all to his own.’
Apollo 13 was the ill-fated mission that failed to reach the Moon due to an exploding oxygen tank. The crew was lucky to return to Earth alive. Commander Jim Lovell took the theme from Staley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to listen to. It’s good that he likes movies. He may have missed the Moon but he did get to be portrayed by Tom Hanks in a movie. ‘I know one of the command module pilots saw 2001 eight times before he went up.’ Andrew Smith tells me. ‘The astronauts liked that movie a lot.’
It isn’t until we get to Apollo 15 that a true music nut gets to choose the sounds. Al Worden took no less than 12 cassettes into space with him. The tapes show him to be quite the hipster: Judy Collins, Simon and Garfunkel and George Harrison all make appearances. The tapes also included poetry and book readings. One rather ‘personal’ track is entitled ‘Something Special from Your Wife’.
Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ accompanied Apollo 17, which was to be the last mission to the Moon (to date). The Apollo programme had failed to sustain the interest of the general public, and the space programme moved its attention away from lunar matters. The Skylab missions of the 1970s were of much longer duration, as were the Shuttle missions of the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s. There was more on-board leisure time on these missions. Music had become a staple space entertainment. The astronauts carried with them Walkmans and, eventually, iPods, and even musical instruments. There is currently an electronic piano on board the International Space Station.
In 1993 the Shuttle astronauts had to start listening to themselves. Max-Q is an all astronaut rock band that plays rock ‘n’ roll covers; they woke up the crew of Discovery with a cover of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. German astronaut Tom Reiter had a specially designed guitar on the MIR space station and played Russian folk ballads. The last song played to the Columbia crew in 2003 before their ship disintegrated on re-entry was ‘Scotland the Brave’.
Are these sometimes dubious astronautical tastes what the human race is to be musically judged upon? Maybe not; it just depends on how hard the aliens listen. I’ve heard it said that a certain amount of all our radio and TV transmissions leak into space. According to Raj Sivalingam of the British Space Centre, ‘To some extent this is true. Some transmitters reach their intended receivers indirectly by bouncing their signals off the layers of atmosphere (like mirrors). Careful planning is done to ensure that this is optimum. Thus extremely sophisticated receiving equipment will be needed to detect and discern such faint signals.’
Even so, it’s a scary thought that extraterrestrial life could just be cherry-picking the very worst that our culture has to offer. Comedian and writer Robin Ince agrees. ‘To think, that radio and TV signals will not die but keep journeying through the universe so long after the human race is dead and gone; the sound of Dave Lee Travis saying “whack whack oops” will still be alive. We have given the universe tinnitus. Even if the aliens do journey towards us, they’ll face a horrifying disappointment. They’ll pick up our signals and imagine a world of the Brains Trust, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the TV plays of Dennis Potter. Just as they arrive though, they’ll tune into Balls of Steel and the Chris Moyles show and reverse at speed.’
What about us? If we listened hard to the stars what would we hear? In 2002 NASA’s Cassini spacecraft picked up tiny radio emissions from Saturn. When the signals are lowered in frequency forty-four times, the human ear can hear what sounds remarkably like Theremin music with a lot of echo. Go to the NASA website and listen for yourself. Perhaps Neil Armstrong knew what we always hoped was true. We may previously have thought that space is silent, but now we know the truth; the music of space goes ‘ooooowwwwweeeeeeeooooooooo’.
Darren Hayman is a musician and songwriter, currently trying to write an album about astronauts — though it’s tough going.