Hey Mr. Spaceman

(Pictured: Atlantis blasts off for the final space shuttle mission, 2011.)

On January 19, 1974, the astronauts orbiting the Earth aboard Skylab were awakened by a medley of appropriate music. For the military men aboard, Commander Gerald Carr and pilot Bill Pogue, the ground crew relayed recordings of the Air Force song “Wild Blue Yonder” and the Navy standard “Anchors Aweigh.” For the civilian scientist, Ed Gibson, they played Steppenwolf’s “Earschplittenloudenboomer.”

Popular Mechanics recently published a fascinating story on the history of astronaut wakeup music, which you should read. The tradition began in 1965 during the mission of Gemini 6, when Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were awakened by a special version of “Hello Dolly,” modified to “Hello Wally,” and recorded by Jack Jones. Although not every crew was awakened by music every morning, the tradition continued through the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. An 89-page NASA report, compiled in 2015, lists all of the songs, which were generally selected by the leaders of the ground crew, who were astronauts themselves.

Often, the music had some connection to the flight crew, military songs or college fight songs, or they refer to some aspect of the mission. The music on the last day of one space shuttle mission was “The End” by the Doors; for another mission, Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.” But the Doors actually made their first appearance in 1972, when “Light My Fire” was used to wake the astronauts aboard Apollo 17 on the day they made a rocket burn to leave lunar orbit. Some other surprising choices from the early years—surprising given that the astronauts would have been members of the pre-rock World War II/Korean War generation: “Eli’s Coming,” “Joy to the World,” and “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night, Jim Stafford’s “Spiders and Snakes,” “Paralyzed” by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy (sent to the crew of Skylab in November 1973), and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Redneck Mother,” which awakened the American crew of the Apollo/Soyuz mission on July 24, 1975.

In November 1981, the crew of the second space shuttle mission was awakened by specially produced episodes of “Pigs in Space,” a feature from The Muppet Show. A vogue for humorous wakeups and parody songs continued for the next several years. In 1988, a Houston radio producer and part-time tour guide at the Johnson Space Center, Mike Cahill, put together a number of elaborate productions for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery. Not long after, NASA issued an edict to cut the comedy, believing it made the shuttle program look frivolous. But the tradition of daily wakeup music continued. By the late 90s, the selections were often pretty hip—not surprising considering that one of the people selecting them was the esteemed Chris Hadfield, who would become the Internet’s favorite astronaut with his performance of “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station in 2013.

Some other cool tunes that awakened the astronauts: “Mr. Spaceman” and “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds (on a 1982 shuttle mission), Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (on numerous occasions starting in 1984), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1989), Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” (1992), “Starship Trooper” by Yes (1994), “Time for Me to Fly” by REO Speedwagon (1996), and “For Those About to Rock” by AC/DC (2001). A 2002 mission included “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, which, thanks to its inclusion in the movie Groundhog Day, became a regular wakeup song whenever a mission had to be extended due to bad weather on the ground, requiring astronauts to repeat their pre-landing routine an additional day. In 2005, Paul McCartney performed a live wakeup of “Good Day Sunshine” during a concert in Anaheim, California, which was beamed to the International Space Station and broadcast on NASA TV.

On July 21, 2011, the final day of the shuttle program, the Atlantis astronauts were awakened by Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America,” dedicated to all of the men and women of the three-decade shuttle program. By that time, however, the tradition of the musical space wakeup went back nearly 46 years.

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2 responses

  1. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy! I desperately wished we’d found life in outer space the day we did that. What better way to greet new life?
    When I went to Seattle’s (excellent) Museum of Flight, they had an exhibit from the later Apollo missions. One thing astronauts took to the moon was a country music mix tape–meaning Conway Twitty has been to the moon.

  2. […] rediscovering a compilation CD I made and then forgot about, about Watergate songs, and about the songs that woke up the astronauts. I imagined a 1972 kitchen-table scene in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Louisiana Sunday in […]

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