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Space Station

Thirteen space music firsts

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Back in the USSR
    Yuri Gagarin’s historic mission was delayed by technical hiccups; sat in his cramped capsule, he asked for Russian love songs to be played to him. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Dancing with the stars
    Apollo 12 astronauts became the first to perform a zero-gravity dance, grooving in weightlessness to the tune of The Archies’ Sugar Sugar. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Lunar tunes
    Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (pictured) sang the first – and last – Moon duet; an impromptu rendition of I Was Strolling in the Park One Day. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Across the Universe
    While it’s not certain the pioneering spacecraft Voyager has left the Solar System, it does hold the record for transmitting songs the furthest from Earth. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Space jam
    The ISS currently boasts a keyboard and a ukulele on board, allowing talented space travellers to bash out a tune amid their other cosmic duties. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Unforgettable flier
    In 2011, Irish rock band U2 performed many concert link ups with the International Space Station (ISS) – including this one with astronaut Mark Kelly (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Space oddity
    In 2011, US astronaut Cady Coleman took her flute into space and played a live link-up with prog rock lip-purser Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, fluting from Russia. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Cosmic vibrations
    Astronaut Don Pettit can lay claim to another space musical first – creating the first didgeridoo in space, using the ISS's vacuum cleaner. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Keep on running
    Music's an important part of keeping fit. “On exercise equipment,” she says, "I couldn’t live without having music," says astronaut Cady Coleman. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Martian song
    A song by Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am became the first to be beamed to Earth from Mars when Curiosity Rover sent Reach for the Stars from the Red Planet's surface. (Copyright: Nasa)
The history of human space exploration has a soundtrack. From sentimental love songs to stadium rock and ethereal folk songs to sixties pop, music has been a constant from the very earliest space missions.

At first, tunes from ground control were used to stave off boredom, help astronauts relax or wake them up at the beginning of the day. But in recent years songs have become more personal and astronauts have even begun performing in orbit – using music as a way of communicating the wonders of spaceflight to audiences around the world.

On Monday 6 May, schools and communities across North America will join together for Music Monday - an annual event celebrating the importance of music. This year's official song - ISS (is somebody singing) - has been co-written by astronaut and musician Chris Hadfield, who is currently onboard the International Space Station (ISS). He will also be perfoming the song live from space.

The event is the latest in a long line of firsts from space. Here we countdown thirteen other cosmic "premieres". Our list has been put together with the help of Nasa, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency and several astronauts from the Apollo missions right up to the present day.

We have also compiled a BBC Future space playlist on Spotify, featuring some of the selections. However, we know it is by no means definitive. So if you have suggestions for the ultimate space mix tape or know of another “first”,  head over to our Facebook or Twitter page.

13. First music played to a spacecraft

It is early morning on 12 April 1961. After a sleepless night, Yuri Gagarin has been bussed out to the Baikonur launch pad and helped into his Vostok capsule. Strapped tightly to his couch, with the hatch bolted shut behind him, he now has nothing to do but wait. With his launch delayed by last minute technical glitches, the initial excitement and tension of this historic day is beginning to wear off. In short, the first spaceman is getting a little bored.

Mission control asks him how he is faring and Gagarin suggests that music might help. As the countdown continues, technicians eventually manage to pipe records of Russian love songs into the capsule.

12. First wake-up song played to an astronaut crew

The tradition of waking American astronauts with a song from Earth, instead of an alarm clock, started during the two day Gemini 6 mission in 1965 with a version of Hello Dolly. Since then wake up calls to Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle crews have included everything from Beethoven to Bowie (Space Oddity, of course) and Tchaikovsky to 10,000 Maniacs. Pretty much every genre of music is represented in the list, with the exception of thrash metal.

The practice came to an end with the final Shuttle mission in July 2011. But in an effort to make every morning memorable, wake up music during this flight included Viva La Vida by Coldplay, Mr Blue Sky by ELO and Celebration by Kool and the Gang. The crew was also roused by a special message from Elton John and the, inevitable, Rocket Man, a capella rendering of Man on the Moon performed by REM’s Michael Stipe; and personal greetings from Paul McCartney and Houston girl Beyonce.

Other memorable wake-up calls to spacefarers have included a message from Captain James T Kirk himself, William Shatner, during the final Discovery mission. Although, thankfully, he did not perform a rendition of his own, unique, version of Rocket Man. Wake-up messages have also been used during the lunar rover missions to Mars, when music is played to rouse control room engineers at the start of another Martian day.

11. First cassette player in space… and first ‘lost’ cassette in space

“We were the first to take our own music,” Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart tells me, “one cassette each.” The audio cassette players flown on Apollo had to be specially adapted to stop the tape unravelling in zero gravity. Anyone who’s ever rewound a tangled tape with a pencil will understand the issue.

Scheickart’s chose a selection of classical music, including British composer Vaughan Williams and American Hovhaness. “My other companions took along more popular music – some country, I recall,” he says. “Mysteriously, I was unable to find my cassette until about the ninth day of our 10 day mission. This was notable in that my flight mates happened not to much appreciate my music!”

10. First zero-g dance

Unfortunately, no definitive list was kept of the selections astronauts chose to take with them to the Moon. Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell remembers listening “to music from the movies Maroon and 2001 Space Odyssey”.

Carl Walker from ESA has spent many years piecing together the playlist from Apollo 12, which includes Suspicious Minds from Elvis Presley and Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield. It also features several country songs – popular among Apollo astronauts – and a song that led to another space first:

“Everyone’s favourite was Sugar, Sugar by the Archies, that was on my tape,” recalls Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean. “We would turn the recorder up loud and, floating above our couches, rock and roll to the Music,” he says. “A great memory even today.”

9. First (and last) duet sung on the Moon

Everyone loves a sing-along but only two men in the history of humanity have taken the opportunity to perform a duet on the Moon. During their four days on the lunar surface Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt walked, bounced and drove across the Moon collecting rock samples. But the highlight for viewers came when they burst into song.

Schmitt begins the impromptu rendition by singing “I was strolling on the Moon one day…” before being joined by Cernan. The song soon founders with the next line: “in the merry, merry month of December…May.” It completely falls apart when they realise they do not know any more words.

8. First TV soundtrack in space

For today’s long duration space missions, most astronauts find music vitally important. “Having some music in your ears is creating your own place to be,” says astronaut Cady Coleman. It is also practical, still serving the same purpose as Gagarin’s flight of preventing boredom. “On exercise equipment,” she says, “I couldn’t live without having music.”

But despite the fact that astronauts can upload new music from Earth whenever they want, they still put a lot of thought into the tunes they select. Esa astronaut Andre Kuipers’ playlist, as uploaded to the ISS, is an interesting case in point. Alongside Holst, Pink Floyd, Snow Patrol and Lou Reed (Satellite of Love, since you ask), there is a fascinating selection of soundtracks.

In addition to the, perhaps surprising, choice of Apollo 13 (where the astronauts nearly get killed), Titanic (where lots of the passengers are killed) and Battlestar Galactica (where the entire human race almost gets killed), there is a wonderful selection of TV cult classics.

These include Barry Gray’s compositions from Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds Space 1999 and the opening titles from UFO – the series where Earth is under attack from aliens and the actors are memorable, ironically, for being more wooden than puppets. With these wonderful series, Gerry Anderson inspired many budding astronauts, so it is fitting that this music has now been played in orbit. 

7. First Flemish rock music

When he became the first European commander of the International Space Station (ISS), Belgian Frank De Winne took particular care to make sure his country’s music was properly represented in orbit.

“I had a lot of Belgium rock bands,” De Winne says. “I like good rock music.”

By the time of his 2009 flight, cassettes, records, and even CDs, had been superseded by MP3s. “You can have iPods or recordings on your laptops,” he explains. “The music is recorded for you and sent up to you on the Space Station.”

As with the Apollo missions, listening to music often remains a communal experience. “Around the table we always had some music playing in the evening,” he says. “It was the task of every astronaut in turn to choose the music.”

And De Winne can also boast another musical first…

6. First stadium tour from orbit

“[U2 lead singer] Bono approached Nasa and wanted to do something with the European guy on the space station,” De Winne explains. “I happily obliged because I also had U2 music with me on the space station, and it’s a great band of course.”

The idea was that De Winne would appear on screen during sell-out concerts being staged around Europe. However, the astronaut had reservations. “Me singing a song is not a good idea for a large audience. With my talents, the stadium would empty very quickly!”

Instead, De Winne ended up conveying video greetings and reciting poems from space. “It was an opportunity to show to the world that the space station exists and we were doing something good for the future of humanity.”

5. First music transmitted from another planet

In August 2012, will.i.am’s Reach for the Stars was transmitted 1,100 million km (700 million miles) across space from the Curiosity rover on Mars. The lyrics aimed at inspiring young people to…reach for the stars.

The catchy tune was backed by a $10 million schools initiative from the musician’s foundation. Speaking at the song’s first public performance from the red planet, he said: "I know my purpose is to inspire young people, because they will keep inspiring me back."

4. First music to leave the Solar System

There has been some debate recently over whether Voyager One has left the Solar System yet but it is certainly getting close. Strapped to the side of each of the Voyager spacecraft are golden records with a handy diagram of instructions about how to play them.

The tracks on these disks were carefully chosen to communicate the sounds of Earth to any aliens. They include recordings ranging from babies crying to the blast-off of a Saturn 5 Moon rocket. They also feature music from Bach and Mozart as well as Peruvian panpipes and Azerbaijani bagpipes.

3. First instruments flown in space

Early on, it seems, astronauts were not just content with listening to music. Instead, they began to take instruments with them. The first instruments believed to have been flown into space were a harmonica and bell on Gemini 6 in December 1965. They were used by astronauts Walter "Wally" Schirra and Tom Stafford to perform Jingle Bells. 

Since then, plenty of others have flown. For example, Nasa astronaut Cady Coleman took three flutes and a penny whistle into space during her last mission to the ISS in 2011. “I brought other people’s flutes with me,” says Coleman. “I feel very strongly that no-one goes on a journey like this alone, that we all take other people with us, and so to be able to share the journey by taking other people’s instruments up as well was something that I really wanted to do.”

Coleman says she was so busy when she was on the station that she was not able to play as much as she wanted. However, when she did, she would sit in the Cupola surrounded by windows looking down on the Earth.

“It’s such a fantastical thing to be looking out of the window and to see the Earth from that perspective. When I hear some of that music, it takes me back to what it felt like to play at the same time.”

To see Coleman in action watch this amazing duet from space (another space first) with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson.

Coleman is not in fact the first astronaut to take a flute into space. That honour goes to Ellen Ochoa who played her flute on the Shuttle in 1993.

2. First cosmic folk band

Coleman is a member of astronaut folk music band Bandella, which also includes current ISS Commander Chris Hadfield. Being away from his fellow band members has not stopped Hadfield from performing with them. A talented singer and guitarist, he has appeared via video from space at several Bandella gigs. He has also duetted from space with folk group the Chieftains and with Canadian band Barenaked Ladies accompanied by a children’s choir (I defy you not to be moved by these videos).

Other space station performers have included Esa astronaut Thomas Reiter, who played classical guitar on Russian space station Mir.

1. First space orchestra… waiting to happen

The ISS currently boasts a Yamaha keyboard and a Ukulele, although it is not clear if they are getting much use. Nasa astronaut Don Pettit also recently made a didgeridoo out of the station’s vacuum cleaner (Incidentally, Pettit’s wife sings in Bandella). Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the first track conceived, written and played in space is recorded by the first space orchestra.

Do you know of any other space music firsts? Or do you have suggestions for songs we should add to our Spotify playlist? If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.