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By Jenny Rowan on

‘Fly me to the Moon’: Apollo astronauts and sound

Did you know that astronauts on Apollo missions were issued with tape recorders and could listen to music in space? Jenny Rowan explores the technology (and the crew’s musical choices).

In space, no one can hear you scream. It’s a classic saying—and for a reason.

Soundwaves need something to travel through to be heard. On Earth, sound can travel through gases, liquids and solids because they all have molecules that act as mediums.

Space, by comparison, is a vacuum. There are no molecules for the soundwaves to travel through, hence why it is silent.

Several astronauts in the early days of crewed spaceflight described this as being quite eerie. They would look out of the window and see their spacecraft’s thrusters firing but would be unable to hear anything.

Despite the overwhelming silence of space, however, astronauts who travelled to the Moon during the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not completely isolated. They were still able to hear communications from Earth, because these relied not on soundwaves but on radio waves that don’t need a medium to travel though.

They also had with them a useful piece of technology to help them pass the time.

Starting with Apollo 9 in 1969, NASA issued each astronaut with a tape recorder. It had a built-in microphone and was primarily used to record mission logs, but also had a speaker that allowed them to play music. Technology being what it was at the time, the mission logs had to be taped over the music. This meant the astronauts were left with less and less to listen to the longer the mission lasted.

Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart conducts a spacewalk
Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart conducts a spacewalk. Apollo 9 was the first mission where the crew were given tape recorders able to play music. Credit: NASA

The tape recorders had to be specially modified to prevent the tapes from unravelling in zero gravity. They were also fixed with small squares of Velcro so that the astronauts could stick them to similarly Velcro-ed areas of the spacecraft to stop them from floating away.

The task of loading the recorders with music fell to Mickey Kapp, the son of the founder of a small record label. He got to know each astronaut, what their musical tastes were, and whether they had any special requests. Using his connections in the industry, he then tracked down master copies of each song and transferred them to the tapes.

Although no official log was ever kept of all of the songs the astronauts chose, interviews and anecdotes show the likes of Glen Campbell and Frank Sinatra to have been popular choices. Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin brought along the likes of Barbra Streisand and Lou Rawls; the crew of Apollo 12 loved ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies; Apollo 17’s Ron Evans even chose some Christmas carols sung by his neighbours!

It was pretty much inevitable that the astronauts on each crew would have different musical tastes. And, if you didn’t particularly like what your crewmate was playing, there wasn’t exactly anywhere to go to escape.

Apollo 8 crew during training
As this photo of the Apollo 8 crew during training demonstrates, space was at a premium inside the Apollo spacecraft. There was nowhere to hide from bad music choices! Credit: NASA

For instance, Apollo 14’s mission transcripts were peppered with complaints from commander Alan Shepard about Ed Mitchell’s decision to seemingly select nothing but country music.

“Those guys actually sell any records of that stuff?” he asked incredulously at one point.

Other astronauts took a different approach to dealing with less-than-ideal music choices. The tape recorder belonging to Apollo 9’s Rusty Schweickart—filled mostly with classical music—‘vanished’ not long into the mission, only to conveniently reappear on the penultimate day. His two crewmates naturally pled their innocence. Schweickart still had his suspicions.

Today’s astronauts, of course, have a lot more technology at their disposal when it comes to being able to play music. However, it still gets you thinking—if you only had enough storage to bring, say, ten songs with you on a long journey, which ones would you pick?

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