By Dr. John Allen,
Program Executive – Crew Health and Safety
Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate
NASA HQ

Music has been a part of civilization for thousands of years, with the human voice likely the first instrument. As humans began to explore beyond their lands and music evolved to include human made instruments, they took that music with them. As they moved across the oceans, sea shanties were used by crews to accompany their labor on board sailing ships, with the rhythms helping to work in unison and to distract them from the drudgery. It has served as entertainment during long ocean voyages and is nearly ubiquitous today on all forms of transportation through personal listening devices. Likewise, music has been part of space exploration since its earliest days and has been present on missions in low earth orbit, during lunar missions, on and from the Martian surface, and beyond our solar system.

Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft included the “Golden Record”, a “phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth”(NASA). Included on this record is an array of musical selections, from tribal music to classical compositions. More recently, in 2012, the Curiosity rover beamed from the Martian surface to Earth the song “Reach for the Stars”, a song written by musician will.i.am. This is the first time – which we know of – that music has been sent to Earth from another planet.

Astronauts and Cosmonauts are very intelligent, physically fit, and highly trained pilots, engineers, physicians, educators, scientists and, not infrequently, accomplished musicians. Space music ranges from the recordings noted above, to live vocal and instrumental performances – some intended by mission planners and some that took ground control completely by surprise. Instruments played in space include the harmonica, guitar, flute, keyboard, bag pipes, and even the didgeridoo. As on earth, some of these performances have been for entertainment of others, but often are just for the individual, for their own relaxation and behavioral health.

Reportedly, the first musical instruments played in outer space included an 8-note harmonica and some small bells. In 1965, American astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford used these and performed their version of “Jingle Bells” while circling the Earth aboard the Gemini spacecraft, much to the surprise of mission planers. Russian cosmonauts provided their own music in the late 1980s, when they played an acoustic guitar on board the Mir spacecraft.

In the 1970s, music for the astronauts on the Skylab was provided via cassette tape recordings. Manifesting recorded music for the crew continues today as digital media that the crew members receive as uploaded music, either from their own collections or streaming services.

Carl Walz and crew

Several musical instruments have been taken to the International Space Station (ISS) during its 17 plus years of continuous habitation. Carl Walz, astronaut, retired Air Force Colonel, and musician was asked what he would like to take with him on his first trip to the ISS. He asked that it be a keyboard. His wish was granted, but not until after extensive testing to make sure that it was safe to have on board. Electronic devices could give off electromagnetic radiation, which could interfere with other electronic systems on board. In addition, testing of other materials for possible off-gassing of potentially toxic substances had to be performed. Obviously, the piano and several other instruments passed these tests.

“Music has been in my life since I was born” said Carl. “My Mom was a professional singer. I have been a vocalist since as far back as I can remember (3rdgrade), and I started playing piano when I was in 4thgrade. I’ve played/sang since then, including at Church and with organized musical groups and choirs; and rock bands to include the Fabulous Blue Moons (high school and college) and Max q (while in the astronaut office).”

During an interchange with Carl, he noted that “One of the fun things on Shuttle missions was the wake up music. That tradition dates back as far back as the Mercury program. Family or friends provide suggested songs to be played to wake crews after a good night’s sleep on the space vehicle. I’m a little unique in that my voice was on the wake up music two times as a singer for Max q (a band comprised mostly of astronauts) entitled ‘What to do in orbit on a Saturday night’ and on an Elvis song – I think it was Jailhouse Rock – that was recorded during a Max q performance where I was the voice of Elvis.”

He went on to say that the ISS “is a little different in that we don’t have wake up music, since our missions are so much longer now. But ISS is large enough to host some musical instruments – currently there is a guitar and an electric piano on orbit. Since we are actually living in space and not just visiting, it makes sense that like any home there be musical instruments and music on board. I selected and brought the electronic piano up with me to the ISS on Expedition 4. The piano has been there ever since. The guitar came up I believe on Expedition 3. I brought music on board from home and would play the music on the piano. I then learned to play the guitar while on orbit, playing the music that I brought from home (it had the chords listed). I would sing while playing as well. It was pretty loud up there, and I would usually play in the US airlock, so that I wouldn’t bother my crewmates. When we had our crew rotations, we had short concerts in the Russian service module (during STS-108), in the US Lab (STS-110) and in the multipurpose logistic module, performing with Astronaut Ken Cockrell (on STS-111).”

Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, astronaut and Center Director for the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston Texas, is classically trained on the flute. She took her flute with her during her Space Shuttle mission (STS-56) but reportedly only had time to play it once, due to the high operational tempo of that mission. However, this may not be exactly correct…

When asked why she took her flute to space she responded by saying, “What I would say about my flute on STS-56 is that I was able to take it because it was part of an educational video that we filmed for NASA’s Liftoff to Learning series, with our episode called Living in Space. It was aimed at K-2 graders, and I was able to include my flute as part of showing what we do in our ‘off-time’, which, of course, there really isn’t any off-time on a shuttle mission! I think there’s a video clip floating around somewhere, but it’s not very good. Doesn’t really compare in playing quality to the solo recitals or orchestral solos I once performed! I played some Mozart, but also the Marine Corps Hymn, Navy Hymn, and God Save the Queen by request of my crew mates. Music had been a big part of my life for many years, so it was meaningful to me personally to be able to play my flute in space and combine my two great passions.”

Cady Coleman

Other notable astronaut musicians have included Cady Coleman, Chris Hadfield, Luca Parmitano, and Don Pettit. Cady performed the first space-ground duet, playing a flute duetwith Ian Anderson (from Jethro Tull). Cady said “I can’t imagine living in space — orbiting our planet 16 times a day — without music. Music is a state of mind. It is a feeling and a combination of notes, sounds and words that capture a moment and stitch you to that instant in time, and everyone associated with it. Floating in the cupola on our space station… looking back at our earth… playing my flute, I feel as if I’m making music together with everyone back home on Planet Earth.”

Chris is well known for his performance of the David Bowie classic, “Space Oddity”.  When asked why he took a guitar to space he replied, “NASA psychiatrists…put that guitar on the Space Station. They had seen the guitar that the Russians had on their space station Mir, and realized how vital music is to human mental health. So in the summer of 2001, NASA purchased and flew a guitar up on Space Shuttle Atlantis, and it has been on the Space Station ever since – over 100,000 orbits. I take an instrument everywhere I go – climbing mountains, living at the bottom of the sea, and even to space. Music is a fundamental part of being human. That doesn’t end at the edge of the atmosphere.”

He continued by stating “Playing and writing music is important for me at the personal level, to help sort and soothe complexity, to celebrate the events of the day, and to remind myself of the creativity of others, to allow me to explain the world to myself and see what’s happening in a different, artistic way. Music is everywhere on Earth, and is just as needed onboard a demanding and action-packed a spaceship.” Despite the high operations tempo of a space station mission, Chris somehow found time to write and record an album from space.

And as to the role of music as we venture beyond planet Earth, Chris said, “Exploration is performed by people, and we need music no matter where we go. Our earliest ancestors brought their music with them; the sailing ships of yore had hornpipes and fiddles, and there has been music on spaceships since the beginning. Music is one of the ways we celebrate and colour life – songs for holidays, movie soundtracks, last dance, and whistle while you work. Being able to perform music is good for the mind and soul, doubly important when very far from home.”

Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano

Luca intended to bring his own guitar, but due to last minute manifest changes he could not, so he played the one Chris mentioned. When asked why he would bring one or wanted to play he responded “I was once asked what I would choose if I could change one thing in the world. The answer that came to me, without thinking, was: ‘I’d have everybody be able to speak a universal language’. Because I believe that through goodwill and communication most problems can be solved. I later realized that such languages already exist: one is math, the other is music. While in orbit, I liked to use music both to relax and entertain, but also to create that unique bond that comes from sharing your music, performing or listening.”

Don Pettit’s performance may not be as well known, but it certainly stands out, as his is the first ever didgeridoo concert in space. The ever creative and consummate engineer and scientist, Don followed this up with a rather unique performance with a didge made from vacuum cleaner parts on board the ISS.

However, performances have been used for more than entertainment. Kjell Lindgren had a small set of bagpipes on which he played “Amazing Grace” to mourn the death of one of NASA’s friends and colleagues who passed away during Lindgren’s mission.

Like the guitar playing of Luca, performances can be a solitary past time, but often they can be shared with others in a variety of settings. For years there have been impromptu small ensembles in space, as well as bands composed of astronauts and those who support space missions, performing on Earth, and of course, collaborations between Earth and space. In addition to Cady’s and Ian’s duet, she performed in 2013 at a conference with members of “Bandella”, a band made up of astronauts, the wife of an astronaut, Chris Hadfield (from the ISS), a NASA flight surgeon, and friends who sat in and rounded out the group.

Today, astronaut Drew Feustel, is orbiting the earth, traveling at 17,550 miles per hour, away from home for six months. He, too, is bringing music to our exploration of the heavens. Recalling the early manifesting of instruments, Drew said “One guitar was already in space andwe asked for another to be flown to support the 3 current crew members who also play guitar(myself, Scott Tingle and Ricky Arnold). We decided that just as we all enjoy playing music on Earth,it would be nice to enjoy the same in space. We performed the first time because we were having a social meal with our Russian crewmates. We played a large variety of songs, a few from each of us, and the more notable were Gloria (the Jimi Hendrix version) and Substituteby The Who.”

Like Chris and others, Drew noted, “I consider music to be the ‘spice of life’. I personally do not go anywhere or do anything without music. I find it has a way of calming and focusing my work. I wish we could play background music while out on a spacewalk!”

When asked if any of his performances have been recorded, he replied, “We did not record the performances, however I would like to attempt to record a song in space and with luck and perseverance, I will accomplish that goal before the end of the mission. I am currently working with Gord Sinclair, a dear friend and member of the Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip, to put together a song that he composed for me. I am certainly not a professional musician, but I will give it my best shot.” Knowing the perseverance needed to be an accomplished space explorer, Drew, like his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts, will no doubt leave us with a recording to remember.

Music is not new to exploration. Music is not new to space travel. According to Dr. Gary Beven, Chief of Aerospace Psychiatryat JSC, “I am certain that music will always play a role in the morale of space crews, just as it has on vessels traversing the oceans for centuries.”

Col (ret) Walz would agree;

“For long duration flights, where you are actually living in space, it is important that your living includes your major hobbies that can provide you with some relaxation and the feeling of home, even though you are away. I found that it was inspirational to be able to play the songs I brought, since most were religious music that I had from my Church. Playing for others lifts their spirits as well!”

Perhaps with missions like Voyager, we will have a fan base when humankind arrives on distant planets. Or, as we continue to listen to the heavens, we will detect celestial compositions emanating from distant regions of the cosmos and learn about the hopes, the dreams, and the musical tastes of their composers and performers.