Can You Hear Us Major Tom? A Brief History Of Rock Music In Space

Ever since astronauts snuck a harmonica and bell onto Gemini 6 in 1965 order to prank mission control that they’d seen Santa Claus in orbit on Christmas day and play ‘Jingle Bells’, NASA has been out to make space rock. So in the week in which GZA and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James have penned songs to celebrate the Juno Mission’s probe orbiting Jupiter, let’s look back at some of music’s most out-of-this-world moments…

Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft

Between 1965 and 2011, astronauts on the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Shuttle missions were woken each morning by a song beamed from earth. The first, back on Gemini 6 – virtually a zero gravity Glastonbury from the sounds of it – was a version of ‘Hello Dolly’, but since then wake-up calls have included ‘Space Oddity’, ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’, Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and, oh yes, 10,000 Maniacs. Astronauts have even had wake-up messages from Elton John, Paul McCartney, Beyonce, Michael Stipe (singing ‘Man On The Moon’ acapella) and, brilliantly, William Shatner.

Bands On The Moon

Starting with the Apollo 9 mission to scout the moon for landing, astronauts were allowed to take a cassette of their choosing, especially adapted so that the tape wouldn’t unravel in zero gravity. Country and rock’n’roll music was popular amongst moon tourists, with both Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son Of A Preacherman’ being played on Apollo 12’s mission to the moon, but the real favourite was ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by cartoon band The Archies. “We would turn the recorder up loud and, floating above our couches, rock and roll to the music,” said astronaut Alan Bean. “A great memory even today.”

Chuck Berry Has Left The Solar System

The first man-made object to enter interstellar space, Voyager 1 boasted a number of golden records strapped to it containing sounds, pictures and scientific gubbins designed to convince extraterrestrial beings that we’re a refined, intelligent planet, and not the species behind Love Island and Boris Johnson. Amongst the classical music and snippets of Peruvian pan-pipe sent into the ether to represent us in 1977, only one rock’n’roll song was included – ‘Johnny B. Goode’. Go Johnny, go go go!

Is There Rock On Mars?

In 2002, a plucky British team of astrophysicists set out to be the first people to land a giant dustbin lid on Mars. They called it Beagle 2 and it was an artistic (if not scientific) triumph. When it crash-landed on the red planet it not only carried a Damien Hirst artwork as a calibration chart but nine notes of a piece of music written by Blur, acting as the call sign for the Martian lander. This means that Blur were – probably – the first rock band played on Mars, although will.i.am’s ‘Reach For The Stars’ became the first song to be transmitted the 700 million miles from Mars to Earth in 2012, as an inspirational message for the children of the world. Come to think of it, might a permanently spinning chair be the key to inventing intergalactic propulsion engine…?

First Band In Space

Presumably bored of being able to upload any music they want to the International Space Station – Pink Floyd, Snow Patrol and Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite Of Love’ have all been plucked from the other side of the cloud – the astronauts have formed their own band, Bandella, including flautist Cady Coleman, who famously duetted with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull via live video link-up from space. The entire band has yet to be in space together but ISS Commander Chris Hadfield has performed with the rest of the band via link-up while in orbit. In 2013 Hadfield also recorded the first ever music video in space, featuring the astronaut floating around the ISS covering ‘Space Oddity’ on a floaty acoustic. Bowie himself helped Hadfield bypass earthly copyright restrictions to keep the video online, describing it as “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created”.