Whether we’re trying to avoid the 323rd replay of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, or working to a jazzy Christmas playlist on Spotify, many of us use Christmas music to prepare for the upcoming holiday. Christmas songs have rich histories, as they’ve been played, parodied, and mashed-up over the years. Many of these songs originated from church hymns or war-time ballads. One of the most well-known songs, Jingle Bells, not only has a lengthy history, but has actually been played from one of the strangest places ever: outer space.
If you’re curious about whether music can actually be played from space, you’re not alone. As space is a perfect vacuum, it lacks the air needed to make the sound vibrations of music. So, technically, you can’t actually play instruments in outer space. As discussed later in this article, all instruments played in outer space (of which there are many) were played on the International Space Station (ISS) or a different spaceship. The air in these environments allows for instruments to be played, but things can get weird.
Things get weirder when you try to broadcast sound in space. If you wanted to play Jingle Bells to all our neighbor planets, you actually couldn’t. Again, because space is a vacuum, there is no air for the soundwaves to travel in. So, the tagline for the movie Alien: “In space, no one can hear you scream,” is quite correct (as scary as that sounds). Science-fiction movies (like Star Trek and Star Wars) enjoy making space full of sounds of gunfire and crashes, misleading all of us to think space is noisier than it is. This can be rather disappointing when you travel into space and hear…nothing.
There is a long history of jam sessions in space. The most memorable of these was the 1965 playing of Jingle Bells. The song was part of a prank by Gemini 6 and 7 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra. This prank occurred when the crews of both missions were finished with the first rendezvous between two spacecraft, a critical step on the way to the Moon. Both crafts reached out to NASA mission control on December 16th, claiming to see a UFO driven by Santa. The transcript of the dialogue, below, shows how surprised and frustrated mission control was (no doubt, they let out a heavy sigh):
Gemini 6: We have an object. It looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory, traveling from north to south. It has a very high [fineness] ratio. It looks like it might be [inaudible]. It’s very low; it looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by, One. It looks like he’s trying to signal us. [Stafford and Schirra play “Jingle Bells”].
Gemini 7: We got him, too! [Laughter].
Gemini 6: That was live, Seven, not taped.
Houston: You’re too much, Six.
The astronauts then proceeded to pull out a harmonica and sleigh bells that they had smuggled aboard, and played the song. This historic jam session has been recorded in the Guinness World Records as the first song played in space, beginning a long tradition of ‘space music.’
There have been many instruments played aboard the ISS, including: a flute, keyboard, bagpipes, saxophone, didgeridoo (made of vacuum tubes), a ryuteki and koto. The last two were part of recent missions from Japan’s space organization JAXA. Playing instruments in space can be quite challenging. Astronaut Ellen Ochoa mentioned that in order to play her flute, she had to put her feet in straps, as the force of her playing in zero-gravity would move her whole body. Keyboardists have found their whole keyboards moving when they press on a key, while guitarists have found their pics floating out of their hands. All of which makes for an interesting experience. For those deciding whether to bring an instrument on a space flight, there are many things to think about, as wooden instruments are quite flammable. Additionally, plastic cases can emit radiation, so metal cases are the best. Most instruments have successfully made the journey, thankfully.
There have been many songs played in space, but the most played artist is David Bowie. A 2013 viral video of astronaut Chris Hadfield of Expedition 35 playing Bowie’s Space Oddity, led to the artist saying that it was: “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created.” Bowie’s Space Oddity and Life on Mars are both played on repeat from the sound system of the Tesla Roadster floating in space as of 2018.
Other artists have debuted in space, including will.i.am, Pink Floyd, and Coldplay. A cassette tape of Pink Floyd’s Delicate Sound of Thunder was taken in 1988 on the Soviet Soyuz TM-7 mission and later played in the craft. More recently, in 2012, will.i.am wrote a song titled: Reach for the Stars, which commemorated the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. The rover played the song, making it the first song played from another planet. And this year, Coldplay’s latest single: Higher Power,was played on the ISS. The song is part of their new album Music from the Spheres, which was released in October of 2021, and is space-themed.
The long history of music in space will always be linked to the 1965 playing of Jingle Bells. The astronauts aboard the Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 probably didn’t realize what trend they were setting when they pulled their prank. Thanks to their efforts, music will continue to be heard and played in space, including for years to come. While our ears can’t hear the sounds of music in the vacuum, we can be excited knowing that astronauts are practicing their instruments and enjoying their music far above us.
Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA and a staff writer at The Quantum Daily and The Deep Tech Insider. She has written various pieces on diversity in deep tech, covering stories from underrepresented communities, as well as discussing how science fiction contributes to the reputations of deep technologies. Follow her on Twitter @kennaculture