Notes from the Void
Being able to play music while up in space is known to help astronauts combat feelings of isolation. However, it is not as simple as tossing an instrument in a rocket on the way up.
Both the microgravity and the thinness of the air can affect an astronaut’s ability to play. There are also concerns with the flammability of materials used and the toxicity of chemical coatings in enclosed spaces.
Throughout the years, changes in the size and materials of instruments have allowed them to travel into space.
Bagpipes were played in space for the first time in November 2015. American astronaut Kjell Lindgren played “Amazing Grace” to commemorate the life of Victor Hurst, a scientist involved in his team’s training. His pipes were custom made out of plastic, which is lighter and easier to keep clean than the typical leather, pigskin, and synthetic materials. It was an impressive feat since bagpipes are harder to play in space than on earth because of the thinner air.
Many Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts have made use of the International Space Station’s guitar over the years, but Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was the first to record a song from space. He said that he had to relearn how to fret because his arm was used to being dragged down by gravity. An identical guitar has been experimented with on Earth to see how microgravity affects sound.
A didgeridoo is a long Australian Aboriginal wind instrument. Although American astronaut Don Pettit could not take a real didgeridoo to the International Space Station because of its size, he constructed one out of a vacuum cleaner pipe and two different end pieces. By pointing it at water droplets, he could watch the resonance make them vibrate and fragment.
American astronaut Ellen Ochoa chose to bring a smaller instrument into space. Her nine-day mission was so packed with work that she only got to play her flute once — as part of an educational video for children. She had to strap her feet down because the small amount of air exiting the flute would have been enough to send her flying around the space shuttle.
American astronaut Ronald Ervin McNair intended to record a song on his saxophone aboard the Challenger space shuttle. Unfortunately, he never did since his flight ended in disaster and the death of his entire crew. A saxophone is now one of many instruments permanently aboard the International Space Station.
A harmonica and bell were the first set of instruments taken into space. American astronauts Walter Schirra and Tom Stafford played “Jingle Bells” while aboard Gemini 6 in December 1965. Today the instruments can be found sitting in the Smithsonian museum.