Friday, July 8, 2011

Instruments In Space

Written by Stefan Aune of Fein Violins

Atlantis blasted off today for the last space shuttle mission. It's surprising how many astronauts are also musicians. You might think that performing on a musical instrument and traveling through outer-space would be two mutually exclusive activities. Surprisingly, many astronauts choose to use their limited allotment of personal items to bring instruments with them, and on rare occasions they broadcast their performances back to earth. During a 2011 interview with National Public Radio, astronaut Cady Coleman played her flute for the audience and talked about the important role music plays in her life on the space station.

Cady Coleman isn't the first astonaunt to perform in outer space. In 1993, Space Shuttle Discovery mission specialist and classical flutist, Ellen Ochoa, had a flute performance broadcast back to earth for an educational event.

Astronauts say that instruments sound the same in microgravity as they do on earth. What changes is the mechanics of playing. Ellen Ochoa had to strap her feet into foot loops to keep the air she expelled to play the flute from blowing her backwards. She said that even with her feet strapped in, her body still moved back and forth from the force of the air coming out of the flute. Astronaut Carl Walz found that he could skip the guitar strap in microgravity but his guitar pick kept floating away. International Space Station science officer Ed Lu had to improvise a special harness in order to play his keyboard in microgravity. Check out this video of Ed playing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" on his specially designed space-station friendly keyboard.

For many astronaunts, playing an instrument in space helps them to cope with the separation from friends, family, and the earth itself. Ellen Ochoa says that "you want to prepare yourself for being away a long time. One of the things you want to do is to carry on with activities that are important to you on the ground. A lot of those, you can't. But whenever you can--and playing a musical instrument is an example -- people sure like to do that." Astronaunt Carl Walz says that "the strangest thing about playing music in space is that it's not strange. In most homes, there's a musical instrument or two. And I think it's fitting that in a home in space you have musical instruments as well. It's natural. Music makes it seem less like a space ship, and more like a home."

Astronaut Carl Walz playing for crew-mates on the International Space Station

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