Rocket & Roll

What do astronauts listen to in outer space? Details tracks the sounds of the final frontier


January 2000

By Steve Knopper

Aboard the space shuttle Discovery, astronaut Steve Robinson once used a 50-foot Japanese robotic arm to snare a four-ton satellite. But Robinson's greatest professional challenge came on the ground. Last June, while working at mission control, he was charged with playing wake-up music for another shuttle crew. One astronaut's wife made him promise to play Barry Manilow's schmaltzy ballad "A Little Traveling Music, Please," and Robinson's flight director -- the mission control center's big boss -- insisted he play the rousing U.S. Air Force theme instead. A delicate decision.

"So I played 'em back-to-back. I thought they would cancel each other out," says Robinson tactfully. "The only complaints were from the navy guys on the crew. But I'm not sure if they were complaining about the air force song or Barry Manilow."

Think of the space shuttle as a high-tech road trip with a difference: You can't get out until the trip is over, pot and beer are forbidden, and 125 miles straight down, somebody who isn't even traveling with you gets to pick what's on the tape deck. That's often Chris Hadfield, chief mission control CAPCOM (capsule communicator), who oversees little details like wake-up music, which is broadcast on an intercom-type system with small speakers on the upper and lower decks of the shuttle.

"You play some lively, peppy bit of music -- normally just two minutes of it -- and after a pause, you hear some groggy voice on the microphone mumbling, 'Good morning, Houston,'" Hadfield explains. "You don't want to play a dirge or something uninspiring. You want to get them going in the morning." Consequently, the selections are usually benign -- it's considered poor form, and possibly dangerous, to freak out a sleeping astronaut with Rob Zombie or Eminem. But the DJs at mission control have been known to exhibit a mixchievous streak. Once, to the crew's sleepy confusion, Hadfield chose the booming half-U2 version of the Mission: Impossible theme.

The 1965 Gemini VI mission was one of the first to include onboard music. Those brave astronauts got "Hello, Dolly!," as sung by clean-cut crooner Jack Jones. For the Apollo II moon mission, flight director Eugene F. Kranz psyched himself up with John Philip Sousa marches. In 1972, the Apollo 17 crew heard the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." The cheese subsided somewhat with the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first U.S.-Soviet manned space flight: That crew woke to the strains of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother." Since then, more anthemic fare has prevailed: the theme from Rocky (1984), "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1989), and the Star Wars theme (1993). The '93 Columbia shuttle mission had better luck with hip reveilles including the Thompson Twins' "Doctor! Doctor!" and R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People."

(It would be a different playlist if DJs did a set at mission control. Moby told Details he would play the Clash's six-gunning version of "I Fought the Law," and a little Bach or Hendrix. Master mixologist Armand Van Helden would spin Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" [what, no "Space Cowboy"?] and David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Mr. Space Oddity himself would choose Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians.")

Because in space no one can hear you scream, "Turn that Crap down!," personal CD players and headphones help fly guys maintain their sanity. For his space-shuttle mission last year -- the one with Senator John Glenn, who preselected Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" as the wake-up call -- astronaut Steve Robinson brought 20 discs. While riding an exercise bike on the lower level, Robinson listened to electric-blues guitarists Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. While staring literally into space, he chose a musician friend's version of Pachelbel's Canon. He fell asleep to Chris Isaak. "It's one of the most personal things that you're able to take up in space. Wherever your music is, that's sort of a version of home," says Robinson. Both Robinson and Hadfield belong to a 12-year-old, all-astronaut, Houston-based rock 'n' roll quartet knosn as Max-Q, whose rotating members cover bash-it-out standards like "Louie Louie." Named after an aerodynamics term for "maximum dynamic pressure," the band has yet to release any albums but occasionally plays NASA functions. In 1993, they woke up the Discovery crew with a cover of "Heartbreak Hotel."

Such musical experience comes in handy in space -- especially if you believe in cross-cultural exchanges. Four years ago, preparing for a shuttle mission to the Mir space station, Hadfield knew he would encounter Thomas Reiter, a German astronaut and accomplished classical guitarist. He also knew earlier Mir astronauts had left a beat-up acoustic for fugure crews -- which, he surmised, Reiter wouldn't appreciate. So Hadfield had a company modify an electric guitar, making it lighter than usual and foldable to fit his luggage. United on Mir, 250 miles above the Earth, Hadfield and Reiter sang Beatles songs and Russian folk ballads. Air guitar, says Hadfield, was never quite like this: "It's great floating weightless going around the world, playing guitar."

On the way back from Mir, Hadfield set his CD player for the Celtic weeper "Danny Boy," his favorite song ever, and watched the stars go by. The experience gave "Headphone music" a whole new meaning. "There are certain stanzas of music, certain harmonies, certain lyrics, which sometimes just send a warm rush up your backbone," Hadfield says. "And you get that almost continuously up there." And to think that we here down on Earth thought Barry Manilow couldn't possibly sound any better.


Ziggy played guitar; Dr. Fiorella Terenzi plays the cosmos.

You may never have heard anything like Dr. Fiorella Terenzi's music, but you may recognize the musicians on her 1991 album, Music From the Galaxies. On lead vocals: Jupiter! ("It whistles," she says.) On rhythm guitar: the Sun! ("It bubbles like boiling water.") On drums: pulsars! ("A precise beating time") On bass: Mother Earth! ("It has a very low frequency.")

Astrophysicist Terenzi assembled her cosmic combo while studying at UC-San Diego. Using radio telescopes and computer sound-synthesis technology, she intercepted space signals and transformed them into tunes. It's the kind of music she hopes we'll hear on flights to mars. "Not the painful music on the radio now," says Terenzi, who has collaborated with Thomas Dolby and the late Timothy Leary and released two CDs in Italy, Galactically Yours and Musica Stellare. "As much as I like Sarah McLachlan or Jewel, their songs are too depressing. Not that I'm a fan of Ricky Martin, but the message in that music is a need to be happy, to dance, to call your girlfriends. Space travelers need music that is beautiful and empowering."

Sorry, Trent Reznor, you're staying home.

(To hear Terenzi's music, astro-surf to