The Soundtrack to Space Exploration

Each time humankind makes a giant leap, music is there, too.

The Mars rover surrounded by musical notes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NASA and barkarola/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

After 15 years of diligently exploring the surface of Mars, the Opportunity rover finally succumbed to the elements and went offline Feb. 13. As obituaries and tributes to “Oppy” surfaced, fans caught a glimpse into the robot’s final moments: the last picture it sent, its last words, the last-ditch attempts to revive it. Scientists wept as they said their final farewells.

Or, rather, sang them. As employees swayed and embraced, mission control sent one final transmission to Oppy: Billie Holiday’s 1944 recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The muted, intimate timbre of Holiday’s voice helped millions say goodbye to “the little robot who could”:

I’ll find you in the morning sun,

And when the night is new,

I’ll be looking at the moon,

But I’ll be seeing you.

Holiday’s song is just one example in a long history of music and space exploration. For millennia, humankind has used sound to try to make sense of cosmic transcendence. While modeling arithmetical relations in musical tuning in the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras posited that each planet emitted a unique harmony as it orbited Earth. Some thousand years later, the Roman philosopher Boethius wrote that musica universalis—the “music of the spheres”—was an inaudible, organizing force in the universe. Another thousand after that, Johannes Kepler further linked musical harmonies to planetary motion, though this time as they moved around the sun. Invigorated by the scientific revolution and Enlightenment ideals, composers in the 18th and 19th centuries drew inspiration from the cosmos: Haydn, Beethoven, and, most famously, Holst, whose orchestral suite The Planets (1914) remains the composer’s most popular work.

At the twilight of the long 19th century, however, the unfathomability of space gave way to possibilities of conquest and colonization. New musical instruments like the theremin lent their otherworldly sounds to the nebulous nature of space, weaving in and out of tones as if navigating the solar system. Take, for example, Les Baxter’s 1947 gramophone record Music Out of the Moon, which arranged lunar themes for the theremin and a lounge jazz ensemble. So transformative were these early sounds of space that Neil Armstrong brought Baxter’s album—this time on cassette tape—with him aboard Apollo 11 in 1969.

Even before Armstrong’s walk on the moon, the space race was as much a sonic phenomenon as it was a scientific and geopolitical one. Listeners around the world tuned in on Oct. 4, 1957, to hear the now-famous beeps of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. With visual confirmation difficult to achieve, the beeps were broadcast over radios and televisions throughout both the Soviet Union and United States as a sort of sonic confirmation that the space race had, indeed, begun.

Sputnik’s orbit provided plenty of creative fodder for composers and performers alike. Many took advantage of space’s romantic potential, as one can hear in songs like Roosevelt Sykes’ “Satellite Baby” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer.” Others turned the nuclear underpinnings of the space race into jaunty satire. In their song “Sputniks and Mutniks,” for example, Ray Anderson and the Homefolks sing in jest about satellites and Soviet space dogs “flying everywhere.” Their upbeat, jostling performance betrays a certain acceptance of Cold War nuclear fears and a new Atomic Age.

With each cosmic development—Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova’s flights as the first man and woman in space respectively, Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk, and more—came new opportunities for musical commemoration. Singing a few lines of the patriotic song during his return to Earth, Gagarin ensured that Shostakovich’s “The Motherland Hears” would become the first song in space. Several cosmonauts, too, recounted singing songs to one another during orbit to keep themselves occupied. (Even astronauts, it seems, get bored on long trips.)

Soviet primacy in the cosmos would fade, however, in the second half of the 1960s, and the Apollo 11 mission marked a decisive turning point in the space race. Disembarking from the lunar lander, Buzz Aldrin one-upped Gagarin by playing a cassette tape of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”—a fitting choice, no doubt, for the moon’s first exposure to human music. Back on Earth, musicians celebrated Apollo’s achievement with performances like Pink Floyd’s “Moonhead,” a live improvisation for the BBC, and Duke Ellington’s “Moon Maiden,” which appeared on ABC. And, watching these and other broadcasts live, millions of viewers around the world celebrated, too.

As space grew ever more contested, music provided the possibility of a sort of sonic détente. During preparations for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint endeavor in space between America and the USSR, the American commander Thomas Stafford reached out to country star Conway Twitty about recording a version of his hit song “Hello Darlin’ ” in Russian. After several hours of phonetics lessons, Twitty recorded “Privyet Radost’,” which Stafford then gave to his Soviet counterpart, Alexei Leonov, as a gesture of goodwill in 1975.

As our conception of the cosmos grew in both distance and scale, so too did our understanding of music’s potential in space exploration. Just two years after the Apollo-Soyuz, scientists and engineers launched the Voyager program, two robotic probes sent to study the outer reaches of the solar system. Nestled onboard is the Voyager Golden Record, a playlist of mankind’s greatest hits, so to speak, designed to carry forth a utopian terrestrial for scientific (and interspecies) posterity. The record includes music by Chuck Berry, Beethoven, Aka Pygmies, and a Navajo ensemble, among others. Bach sounds besides gamelan music, Japanese shakuhachi begets an Indian raga—a human Top 40 for any interstellar traveler to find.

Though music’s position as a “universal language” has been convincingly debunked, the enduring belief that it can speak across divisions, species, and light-years makes it a compelling symbol for the Space Age. It humanizes that which seems inherently inhuman: aliens, galaxies, and machines alike. More importantly, however, it gives us pause and allows us to reflect on the cultural joy of space exploration amid all the technological jargon and logistics. And so, as we #thankoppy, celebrate interstellar accomplishments, and dream of cosmic futures, we might do well to remember that we will not only, as Holiday sings, “be seeing” space. We’ll be listening to it, too.

Who knows, someone might just be listening back.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.