The science of music in space

For decades, psychological support staff have recognized the importance of listening to and playing music for astronauts on long-duration space missions.

Cosmonauts and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts living on Mir had access to a guitar, and crew members on the International Space Station (ISS) have had access to a flute, keyboard, saxophone, an Australian didgeridoo, and a Canadian-made parlour guitar made by Vancouver manufacturer Jean Larrivée brought by the Russians on Expedition 2 (2001).

Having the chance to grove and jam in the final frontier is critical for astronauts looking to maintain some of the human aspects of an Earth-bound life amongst the isolation of a long-duration mission in space.

Chris  brought a collapsible guitar to the space station

Chris Hadfield brought a collapsible guitar to the Mir Russian space station in 1995. (Credit: NASA)

A cosmic recording studio

When living on the ISS as a mission specialist and then its commander, Canadian astronaut (and folk guitarist) Chris Hadfield plans to spend some of his free time composing, performing and recording original words and music inspired by his experiences in space.

Tucked into the station's panoramic cupola window, Hadfield will even do a recording session from orbit to Earth with Barenaked Ladies front man Ed Robertson. Hadfield and Robertson wrote a new song to be performed with young Canadians from across Canada for Music Monday 2013 right before Hadfield comes is scheduled to land in May.

Ed and Chris playing the song they co-wrote

Ed Robertson and Chris Hadfield playing the song they co-wrote for Music Monday 2013 (CBC Music YouTube Channel). (Credit: CBC Music).

Ed and Chris playing the song they co-wrote

Ed Robertson and Chris Hadfield playing the song they co-wrote for Music Monday 2013 (CBC Music YouTube Channel). (Credit: CBC Music).

Adapting for space

Short of a full-sized grand piano, pretty much any type of musical instrument can be brought up into orbit, providing it meets certain standards.

For safety, the current electronic keyboard on the ISS had to be tested to ensure it wasn't a significant source of electromagnetic radiation (which could interfere with station operations.) While you might think it would be tougher to bring aboard a keyboard in a metal case, it actually wouldn't emit as much radiation as one in a plastic case.

Such an instrument must also be tested for toxicity by placing it in a special chamber at up to 50° C. Something that reveals a whiff of alcohol (not toxic to humans in small amounts) would be cleared to fly, while something with even small amounts of an oil-based chemical like benzene – dangerous for astronauts to inhale in an enclosed space – would be banned from orbit.

Science of space concerts

Actually playing music in space is another challenge entirely... While sound reverberates the same way in orbit as it does on Earth, the absence of gravity makes holding and performing with a musical instrument a challenge.

For example, someone playing the keyboard on the ISS would want to bungee cord the keyboard to their knees, if sitting on a floor, ceiling or wall to play.

And watch-out for kick-back from instruments: even the tiny breath you'd emit while playing a flute can sent you off-kilter.

Astronauts tend to like to hook their feet into straps or other secure parts of station modules while playing music to avoid flying into walls or people during a jam session.

To play a guitar in orbit, you don't need a strap – the guitar just floats in front of you, but – as Chris Hadfield explains – you have to "re-learn" how to fret:

"When you're moving fast on the neck, you often miss the frets", he says. "On Earth, you're used the weight of your arm, which helps you track where your hand's going to go... Without gravity, you tend to overshoot the mark."

But like anything else, practice makes perfect and Hadfield will take every opportunity during his free time to float to the station's cupola to jam on the Canadian space guitar.

Steve Robinson plays the Larivée guitar in the station

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Steve Robinson plays the Canadian-made Larivée guitar in the station's cupola. (Credit: NASA)

Astronaut Catherine Coleman brought four flutes with her

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman brought four flutes with her to space on her latest mission. (Credit: NASA)

CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield performed I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) with hundreds of students. Credit: CSA/NASA