Sep 4, 2003

Space StationMusic

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A surprising number of astronauts are also musicians--and they love to play in space.


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Sept. 4, 2003: Astronaut Carl Walz once lived on the International Space Station (ISS) for 196 days--about six and a half months. That's a long time to look down at Earth, and not be able to touch it.

Before he went up in 2001, Walz recalls, the psychological support people asked him what kind of things he'd be interested in taking along. "I said, 'Well, a keyboard would be nice.' And they said, 'We'll look into that.'"

A lot of astronauts play instruments. There's even an astronaut rock-and-roll band. And a surprising variety of musical instruments have found their way into space: in addition to the keyboard, there's been a flute, a guitar, a saxophone, and an Australian aboriginal wind instrument known as a didgeridoo.

Right: Carl Walz plays the keyboard for a group of astronauts onboard the International Space Station.

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, a classical musician, brought her flute as one of her personal items on her first shuttle flight. She only got to play it once, though, and that was as part of an educational video for school kids. On short shuttle flights, she explains, astronauts are so busy that they really don't have much time to play an instrument. "For a shuttle flight, it's probably more of a sentimental thing, a memento for people who have had music as a serious hobby."

But on long duration stints onboard the station, "you do have a fair amount of free time," says Walz, "especially on Sundays." There's more opportunity to take out an instrument and play.

"It's a link to home," says Walz, who plays for his hometown church, sings in the astronaut band, is known for his Elvis imitations, and, during his time on station not only played the keyboard, but also found the time to teach himself some guitar. Walz thinks that link is important. "Some guys might disagree, and say, 'well, you know, you want to cut all those links.' But I prefer to have them." No matter how long an astronaut remains in space, he says, "we all know we're going back to Earth. We know we're going back to that life."


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For Mike Pedley, the concern isn't music, it's safety. Pedley is the NASA space station manager for Materials and Processes, which means that if an astronaut wants to bring up a musical instrument, Pedley has to make sure it's safe to fly.

An electronic keyboard, for instance, might be a source of electromagnetic radiation capable of interfering with the operation of the shuttle or station. Such items can usually be modified, explains Pedley. The type of casing makes a difference: something in a metal case generally doesn't emit much radiation; in a plastic case, it emits more. Usually, he says, it's possible to change one or two components in a way that reduces the radiation without affecting the function.

Wooden instruments like guitars raise another concern: they're flammable. These things are allowed to go up only if astronauts agree to handle them with care and stow them while not in use.

When you play music on the shuttle or the station, it doesn't sound different, say the astronauts. The physics of sound is the same in microgravity as it is on Earth.

What changes is the way you handle the instruments.

"When I played the flute in space," says Ochoa, "I had my feet in foot loops." In microgravity, even the small force of the air blowing out of the flute would be enough to move her around the shuttle cabin. In fact, even with her feet hooked into the loops, she could feel that force pushing her back and forth, "just a little bit" as she played.

As for guitar, says Walz, "you don't need a guitar strap up there, but what was funny was, I'd be playing and then all of a sudden the pick would go out of my hands. Instead of falling, it would float away, and I'd have to catch it before it got lost."

Left: ISS science officer Ed Lu--another astronaut musician--performs for space station commander Yuri Malenchenko in the foreground. Click here to watch a video of Lu playing Peanuts during a interview with CBS Radio news on NASA TV.

And when he played the keyboard, Walz, too, had to use foot restraints to hold himself in place. In microgravity, he says, every time you hit a note, you push the keyboard away. "You have to sort of get used to that." Walz managed by strapping the keyboard to his legs with a bungee cord. "That constrained it a little bit more," but he never did figure out how to use the foot pedal without moving out of position.

Instruments are also checked for any gases they might produce. Unlike Earth where noxious fumes can waft harmlessly out the window, the space station is airtight. Even tiny amounts of gas could accumulate given time.

"Well since I left my baby;
"I found a new place to dwell.
"It's 400 kilometers in the air.
"It's called space station Alpha.
"But baby it's lonely.
"Oh it's so lonely.
"But I'll be back in May.
"Ohhhhhhh, yeah."

Onboard the ISS, Carl Waltz sang this rendition of Heartbreak Hotel via radio to a group of teachers in Houston, Texas. [more]

"We test some of them by putting a piece of the material into a closed chamber and heating it to as much as 120 degrees Fahrenheit for three days," explains Pedley. Then they take a sample of the gas and analyze it. (NASA testing procedures are so good that the US Navy is adopting them for submarines.)

"You always get a mixture of stuff coming off," he says. It's very common for things to give off high levels of alcohols, because they're often used as cleaning solvents. But, since the alcohols aren't very toxic, the levels don't normally matter. "Something like benzene, though, is relatively toxic, and it would take only a small amount to make the hardware unacceptable."

Says Pedley: "The failure rate is miniscule," but it has to be done.

Astronauts are starting to spend longer amounts of time in space. The physical stresses of space travel are widely-known--but there are psychological stresses as well. And the astronauts know this. "In long duration," says Ochoa, "you want to prepare yourself for being away a long time. One of the things you want to do is to carry on with activities that are important to you on the ground. A lot of those, you can't. But whenever you can--and playing a musical instrument is an example -- people sure like to do that."

"The strangest thing about playing music in space," says Carl Walz, "is that it's not strange. In most homes, there's a musical instrument or two. And I think it's fitting that in a home in space you have musical instruments as well. It's natural."

"Music makes it seem less like a space ship, and more like a home."

more information

Carl Walz: astronaut biography (NASA/JSC); Space Walz (APOD); 2001 interview (NASA); Expedition 4 crew (NASA);

Ellen Ochoa: astronaut biography (NASA/JSC); NASA's First Female Hispanic Astronaut Shares Experiences (NASA);

See a movie of ISS science officer Ed Lu playing piano onboard the International Space Station: short version (660 kb) or long version (1.8 Mb). Credit: NASA TV and CBS Radio news.

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