Mixtapes to the Moon

One thing that was not widely publicized during the Apollo program was that the astronauts carried music with them into space. To do so, they took a piece of equipment they were already carrying for mission purposes – the cassette tape recorders used to record their notes – and made them serve double duty. In a very weight-conscious space program, where every ounce must be accounted for, this was the only solution to the challenge of music in space that would work, aside from mission control transmitting music over their communications channel (which they occasionally did). 

Cassette tape recorders were already available commercially, but the sound quality was not yet good enough to compete with vinyl albums or reel-to-reel tape players. So audiophiles weren’t using them much yet for music. The Sony Walkman, released in 1979, would make personal cassette players ubiquitous – but this was not yet the case in 1969. Musical cassette tapes just weren’t being produced, at least not commercially. 

One small record label, Kapp Records, took on the task of making mixtapes for the astronauts. Mickey Kapp, the son of the company’s founder, ingratiated himself to the first class of astronauts during the Mercury program with space-themed comedy records. It was Kapp’s suggestion during the Gemini program that the tapes the astronauts carried with them could launch with music pre-recorded on them, which could then be recorded over with mission notes as needed. The astronauts were now spending days or weeks in space and, Kapp figured, they would need something to entertain them during their downtime. Phillips introduced the first compact cassette tapes in 1962, two years before the first Gemini flight – just in time to become a space age technology.

Making the mixtapes required the equipment of the Kapp Records studio, as well as Mickey Kapp’s professional connections. Kapp spent time with the astronauts and got to know their personalities and musical preferences, and he took their requests. Before their flights, Kapp used his industry connections to get copies of the master tapes of what they wanted to listen to and, in the studio, transferred the music to cassette. Kapp consulted for NASA in this capacity until the last Apollo flight in 1972.


Spacey Music – In Space!

According to most accounts, the astronauts of Gemini and Apollo listened mainly to adult contemporary and country music. They probably didn’t have much affection for the music of the counterculture that the youth outside of NASA enjoyed. We know they had an affinity for artists like Glen Campbell and Frank Sinatra (“Fly Me to the Moon” is a pretty obvious choice for a lunar voyage). If you’ve seen the recent documentary, Apollo 11, then you probably remember hearing the crew of that flight playing the folk song “Mother Country,” by John Stewart. It’s a very patriotic tune that references the “good old days” of an America shaped by self-sacrifice and rugged individualism. It recounts the devastation of the Johnstown flood of 1889, and the men and women who pulled together in the face of that disaster. 

Neil Armstrong’s musical tastes were a bit more complex than his colleagues. He chose to bring something spacey onboard his space capsule. Spacey music had been around for quite a while before the Space Age began. The jazz composer Sun Ra, for example, had been incorporating space themes and imagery into his work since the 1940s. And you can find space themes in classical music even earlier (the English composer Gustav Holst finished his suite The Planets in 1916, for example). But Armstrong chose something even more obscure – the 1947 album, Music Out of the Moon: Music Unusual Featuring the Theremin. As the album’s title suggests, the music was experimental and exotic and utilized the electronic tones of the Theremin to achieve its spacey affect. Even by today’s standards, its sound possesses an alien or otherworldly quality. Armstrong seems to have been drawn to the novelty of the album, as were many other listeners (according to Wikipedia, it is considered the best selling Theramin album of all time).


Apollo as a Flying Circus

NASA’s human spaceflight program was a product of the late-1950s, with the first Mercury astronauts selected in 1958. By most accounts, the culture within NASA didn’t change too much from the 50s into the 60s. The political priority of beating the Soviets in space remained the driving force for every decision made inside NASA’s gates, and the astronauts allowed their work and home lives to be shaped by NASA; they were the faces for the largest technocratic endeavor ever attempted, and at stake was no less than the free world itself. The astronauts paid little attention to what went on outside of the gates. Their focus remained on their training and on the task at hand.

Meanwhile, outside of NASA, the culture was undergoing significant changes. Americans in large numbers were losing faith in technological solutions and growing more cynical toward the Cold War campaign for hearts and minds. Internationally, America was facing the human cost of the war in Vietnam. While the close relationship between science, technology, and the military during World War II had been regarded as beneficial, in the shadow of Vietnam, Americans grew skeptical of this alliance. Domestically, the reality of poverty and the escalating confrontations over civil rights and desegregation were shifting people’s attention toward problems at home. Many Americans wondered whether, in light of these social problems, beating the Russians to the Moon was worth the hefty price tag (a recent estimate by Casey Dreierof the Planetary Society put the total direct cost of Apollo at $209 billion in 2019 dollars). Shouldn’t NASA’s funding be commensurate with that of other government agencies?

One song that gets to the heart of this critique of Apollo is African American singer-songwriter Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Scott-Heron wrote the lyrics to the song in the summer of 1969, inspired by the words Eldridge Cleaver, a leader in the Black Panther Party. From his self-imposed exile in Algiers, Cleaver called Apollo a “circus to distract people's minds from the real problems, which are here on the ground.” His remarks were reprinted in the New York Timesthe day after Apollo 11 launched. Cleaver’s sentiment was in line with other African American public figures. Only a few years earlier, speaking before the U.S. Senate, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that “in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the Moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay, and turbulence.”

Scott-Heron’s lyrics put into verse these questions about the country’s priorities during a time of poverty, drug abuse, racial inequality, and urban unrest. The song builds a first-person narrative around the frustrations of a man whose sister becomes sick after being bitten by a rat and the struggle to pay the doctor’s bill, rent, and other expenses, all while seeing white men walk on the Moon. The lyrics are delivered as a spoken word poem over an insistent beat. The song is a tour-de-force – a powerful critique that asked whose lives were improved by the public money spent on Apollo – but it was deemed too controversial for mainstream radio, and was mostly aired on African American radio stations and in coffeehouses. 

Related Topics Apollo program Human spaceflight Society and Culture
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