If you watched the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars last week and the live commentary afterward by NBC’s Raquel Villanueva, you probably caught Yungblud singing a cover of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” while selfies sent in by viewers celebrating the successful touchdown played across the screen.
Of course, David Bowie wrote “Life on Mars” in 1971, when landing on Mars was done only in scifi books and movies, most of which predicted a Mars landing somewhere between 1990 and 2010. Arthur C. Clarke’s now famous novel The Sands of Mars, while it did not actually mention a date for the landing on Mars, was set in the 1990s, establishing a high bar for space travel. Many space fans like me believed him and have been disappointed that the Mars landing we were promised in the 1990’s has not yet happened.
But we have space music, boy do we have space music.
Mars – and space in general – has been filled with music. Space has been fascinating to songwriters and astronauts and novelists and film makers. When we think about space music, we either go directly to the spooky music in scifi films or, more likely, to Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, or “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. Or we reach into our grandparent’s vinyl collection for Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”.
But space music has been around long before our grandparents. On the classical side there is “Planets” by Gustav Holst written in 1914. More recently, so to speak, is the 1958 Karl-Birger Biomdahl opera, Aniara, about a tragic incident on a spaceship. Not to be outdone, that same year Russ Garcia recorded Fantasica with Capitol Records, an album about space travel. The list goes on – Mike Oldenfield’s album Songs of a Distant Earth, Bonzo Dog Band’s “The Urban Spaceman”, Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin”, and Devo’s “Space Junk” to name a few.
And then of course there are an almost uncountable number of space movie themes and sound tracks –the stirring music in 2001 A Space Odyssey, John Williams ‘opening for Star Wars, and even back in the 1950”s with the music for The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invaders from Mars and (insert your favorite space movie here).
NASA has long understood this symbiosis between music and space. In 2007 they published “Sounds of Outer Space Near Jupiter” and “Sounds of Saturn” as part of its “Spooky Space Sounds– real music from outer space – sort of. Even better, in 1969 NASA recorded, and in 2008 released, whistling heard by Astronauts on Apollo 10 as they circled the moon. Astronaut Eugene Cernan called it “outer-space-type music,” but NASA, of course, flatly denied that it could have space alien music and attributed it to radio interference.
With or without whistling aliens, there was and is music in space. Astronauts on the Gemini 6 played the harmonica and bells as they orbited. Russian astronaut Alexander Ivanchenko played an acoustic guitar on Sallyut-6, Ronald A. McNair played a soprano sax on Challenger in 1984, and Astronaut Ellen L. Ochoa played the flute on Discovery in 1993.
The International Space Station (ISS) was a veritable music venue. Astronaut Catherine G. Coleman on Expedition 26/27 to the ISS played a flute duet with an earthbound Ian Anderson, frontman for Jethro Tull. In 2018 the crew of the ISS gathered for a jam session with a guitar, flute, Irish flute and drum made from a waste container. And an astronaut calling himself DJ Astro Luca even DJ’ed an Ibiza cruise ship party from the ISS in 2019.
A guitar was standard equipment on the Mir Space Station, and somehow the crew of Expedition 3 managed to get a keyboard on to the ISS. Astronaut Donald R. Petit in 2012 built and played a digeridoo on Expedition 30/31 to the ISS.
So, space and music go together like Mars and little green people. Yungblud’s appearance at the landing of Perseverance on Mars (sorry, no little green people) is one more example. Given the youth and coolness of the young women and men at JPL and NASA (and maybe soon at Space X) who are designing and building and managing spaceflight in the US, I am willing to bet there will be instruments and musicians on board the first human landing on Mars…maybe even Yungblud. That would be cool.
Patrick O’Heffernan, Host, Music Sin Fronteras radio
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