Why Music is Important to Astronauts in Space

By Terry Dunn

Whether making music in their precious spare time, or listening to music throughout their workday, having musical outlets available is vital for the happiness and well-being of the astronauts orbiting above us.

I recently saw a video of astronaut Kjell Lindgren playing bagpipes in space. Although Lindgren appears to be a fine player, it wasn't his piping that intrigued me. I couldn't stop wondering when and how they put bagpipes on the International Space Station (ISS). I knew there was a guitar and a keyboard in orbit…but bagpipes? Those pipes had to compete against food, spare parts, and other obvious necessities to get a ride into space. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when that idea was pitched to NASA logisticians!

The fact that NASA and its partners were willing to make it happen underscores the importance that music plays in the lives of orbiting astronauts. Whether making music in their precious spare time, or listening to music throughout their workday, having these outlets available is vital for the happiness and well-being of the astronauts orbiting above us.

Tooting Their Own Horns

As it turns out, there are several other musical instruments aboard ISS that I wasn't aware of. Those in the know at the Johnson Space Center informed me that in addition to the bagpipes, Larrivee acoustic guitar, and Yamaha electronic keyboard, there is also a flute, a ukulele, and an electric guitar. And that is just the permanent stash of instruments. Others have stayed temporarily and returned to Earth.

Credit for the first musical instrument in space goes to the soprano saxophone carried aboard the space shuttle by Dr. Ron McNair in 1984. McNair normally played the tenor sax, but there was no way he could ever justify bringing the large instrument aboard. Even the diminutive soprano sax's flight status was uncertain right up until launch.

Dr. Ron McNair plays a soprano saxophone, the first musical instrument in space, aboard the space shuttle in 1984

McNair prepared for months in advance of his mission to adapt to the nuances of playing the smaller sax. He secretly worked with saxophone guru, Kurt Heisig, to fine tune his technique and equipment. Due to McNair's hectic training schedule and Heisig's California locale, all of their sessions took place over the phone.

The pair anticipated that low atmospheric pressure in the shuttle's cabin could affect how the sax behaved. To compensate, McNair worked on conditioning exercises and packed a varied selection of reeds. Some unpredicted factors, however, would prove more troublesome.

Without gravity, McNair found that the water sometimes went where it wasn't wanted in his zero-G saxophone.

Anyone who has played a wind instrument knows that moisture collects inside the horn while playing and must be dealt with on occasion. Without gravity, McNair found that the water sometimes went where it wasn't wanted – with undesired, bubbly effects. The dry, processed air inside the shuttle had the opposite effect on the instrument's pads made of felt and leather. This necessitated several minutes of playing to rehydrate the pads before they would perform properly.

After the mission, McNair and Heisig worked on solutions to the problems of zero-G sax playing. Tragically, their ideas would never be tested. McNair and his crewmates were killed when the shuttle Challenger broke up during launch in 1986. Sources provide conflicting information regarding whether McNair's sax was aboard Challenger that day.

Like McNair, other astronauts discovered the unique benefits and challenges of playing music in space. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is a prime example. Hadfield, who released an album composed of songs that he recorded on the ISS, shared his experiences while on a tour of the Larrivee factory in Vancouver, "It's cool playing a guitar in space because it floats in front of you. So you don't need a strap."

Hadfield also noted how he had to adjust his technique in space.

"If you're moving fast on the neck, you tend to miss the frets when you first get to space. Because you're not just used to the mass of your arm, but on Earth you're used to the weight of your arm as well. And so it helps you track where your hand is going to go. But without gravity, you tend to overshoot with your hand. So you have to relearn how to fret if you're trying to fret in a hurry without gravity."

More often than not, time is the most significant barrier to musical expression in space. Clayton Anderson remarked that he couldn't scrounge enough free time during his 5-month stay on the ISS.

"I tried to teach myself to play the guitar, and I also tried to write some music using the keyboard (I play piano). I was not very successful with either endeavor, as I found I simply didn't have the time required to dedicate myself to consistent work. Zero gravity also made it more difficult to do both!"

The ISS has been home to an acoustic guitar for many years. Dan Burbank is just one of the many astronauts and cosmonauts who have enjoyed playing it.

If time for making music is difficult for the long-term tenants of the ISS to find, it was doubly so for crews on the 1-2-week missions of the space shuttle. According to two-flight veteran, Mike Foreman, there was never enough time for instruments during his flights. "Unfortunately, Space Shuttle crew members rarely had much time off - the limited time in space was too precious and we had a lot to do!"

Former shuttle commander Mike Coats agrees. "As far as I know, nobody carried any musical instruments on any of my three missions. There really wasn't much time to play a musical instrument during a busy 7 or 8 day shuttle mission, and spaces are tight even in the shuttle."

In spite of the difficulties, some shuttle astronauts were able to follow McNair's example. In fact, Cady Coleman has played a number of different flutes in space aboard both the shuttle and the ISS. She even played a duet with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson via satellite.

Cady Coleman has played numerous flutes in space aboard the space shuttle and ISS.

Whistle While You Work

Of course, you don't have to be making music to enjoy music. NASA has long recognized the benefits of providing ways for astronauts to listen to recorded music while in space. Crews have had ready access to portable music player at least since the Apollo era. In fact, a cassette tape flown aboard Apollo 14 was auctioned off in 2012. The playback devices used by astronauts have changed with the times.

Coats recalls,

"During the early shuttle missions we carried cassette tapes and individual headphones to listen to our favorite music during the presleep and sleep periods, and I think almost everyone did so. I carried a lot of Barbra Streisand songs. Floating at the window during a night pass, watching the lights of the cities and the spectacular lightning storms, while listening to Streisand sing "Memories" is quite a nice memory."

Tom Jones struck a similar chord as he relayed how music is intertwined with the memories of his shuttle flights.

'Nothing better than looking out at Earth and playing your favorite mood music to link the view to musical memories you'll have forever. I had several songs playing in my head while I was out on my spacewalks, and it was great to work out there to some favorite mind-music. Great memories.'

Although portable CD players were available by the time Winston Scott flew on the shuttle, he told me that he preferred cassettes. "Back then, we could make our own tapes, but we couldn't record CDs." The accomplished trumpeter enjoyed listening to mix-tapes with selections of classical music, jazz, and R&B.

Listening to music is a popular activity on the ISS. Here, Nicole Stott plugs in while exercising on the treadmill.

CDs were the medium of choice for Foreman.

"…I had a portable CD player and a few CDs. After one mission I met Bruce Springsteen and gave him the "Springsteen's Greatest Hits" CD that had been to space with me. On STS-123, Rick Linnehan even brought a pair of speakers so we could all listen to music together."

These days, astronauts bound for the ISS can choose a personal library of music before they launch. Their songs are loaded onto laptops, iPods, and iPads in orbit. This allows them to include music in their workday if they choose. Anderson elaborates,

"We were allowed to provide selections of our favorite music to be digitized and sent to the ISS. I provided only a few selections as I typically am not a music listener while working. For me, it was okay to use the selections of Suni Williams and Mike Lopez-Alegria, as they had enough music for everyone!

While in space, if doing mundane tasks, I would play some music in the lab to make the place seem more "like home." My Russian crewmates also enjoyed playing music during mealtime and on weekends; helping us to relax after a long and busy week."

Rise and Shine

One of the favorite traditions for space shuttle crews was the daily wake up music. When it was time to rouse the crew from sleep, mission control would pipe in music to the orbiter like an alarm clock. The songs were usually selected by people close to the crew and they often had special meaning. In Foreman's words, "I think we all enjoyed the wake up music that our friends and family selected for us - it was always a great way to start each day!"

Coats recalled one instance where his crew flipped the script.

"The wake up music was always fun. On 41-D, the first flight of Discovery, we woke ourselves up early one morning and surprised the MCC [Mission Control Center] by first playing down the theme from Star Trek, and then a recording that William Shatner had done for us saying 'This is Captain James T. Kirk of the space shuttle Discovery . . . ' We had asked the Star Trek folks to lend us some of their 'Federation' uniforms for the mission, but they declined."

The ritual of waking to music did not carry over to the ISS. However, Anderson, like Coats, found great satisfaction in creating his own reversed variation on the theme.

Ed Lu demonstrates one of the unique attributes of playing musical instruments in zero-G.

"On ISS, there is no wake up music. During my 5 month mission, I was the wake up music guy, providing selections every morning that were dedicated by me (disk jockey for KISS radio from outer space) to some member or group of our support team on the ground who helped our mission be successful. From 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines' (dedicated to the instructor pilots at Ellington Field) to the Canadian and Italian national anthems. The Canadian anthem was played for Capcom Robert Thirsk while he was on console…he stood and saluted! The Italian anthem was played for ESA/Italian Astronaut Paolo Nespoli while he was on Discovery, during rendezvous with the ISS to bring me back to Earth! I really enjoyed finding appropriate songs, dedicating them and hearing the reactions from the folks on the ground. [It] really helped to make the mission real for them too."

Coda

As on Earth, music plays a significant part in the lives of humans living in space. That role will crescendo as missions become longer and venture further from our home planet. During my interviews, each of the astronauts mentioned the vital role that music will play to astronauts on the long-duration missions currently being planned. Scott went one step further in stating that the importance of music justifies more effort than merely providing musical resources to the crews. He suggests that NASA should sponsor research to determine how strategic uses of music - something akin to music therapy - can help long-duration astronauts mitigate the physical and emotional stresses that they will endure. Let's all hope that NASA takes note and builds on its history of maintaining an active musical presence in space.

Acknowledgements - I would like to thank the following people for sacrificing their time to provide information for this article: JSC Behavioral Health Group, Clayton Anderson, Mike Coats, Mike Foreman, Kurt Heisig, Thomas Jones, Winston Scott

All images appear courtesy of NASA

Resources and additional reading:

  1. Sax in Space, Kurt Heisig

  2. Flute on ISS, NASA

  3. Space Station Music, NASA

  4. The Science of Music in Space, CSA

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight