Do Space Cowboys Ever Sing the Blues?
Specimen Notes from the Mini Museum: Astronaut Mix Tape
Skylab in space (Source: NASA’s History of Skylab
Commander Scott Kelly on the International Space Station
In 2015, NASA Astronaut and International Space Station Commander Scott Kelly noted that "music is a huge part of life in space". Kelly would know, since he was in the middle of spending a year in space with Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko.
Of course, for those spending so much time up there alone, something as simple as having a song to listen to can mean a lot. We'd like to share the story behind one specimen that exemplifies the human experience in orbit: the Astronaut Mix Tape. This specimen represents Skylab and one of the most daring rescue missions performed in space.
Launch of the Uncrewed Skylab Station
NASA Officials discussing the problems with the Micrometeoroid Shield (Source: NASA "Fixing Skylab")
The unmanned Skylab Space Station launched on May 14, 1973. The program was designed to be NASA’s follow-up to the Apollo missions to the Moon. Unfortunately just sixty seconds after takeoff, problems were detected with the launch. The Micrometeoroid Shield designed to protect Skylab in space deployed early and crushed two of Skylab’s solar panels.
The space station made it to orbit and Mission Control positioned the craft so that its remaining solar panels would point towards the sun. This allowed the station to generate electricity, but also exposed less insulated portions of the hull.
As a result, temperatures inside the space station soared. There were concerns that the entire project might need to be scrapped, so the follow-up mission to activate the space station became a rescue mission for the entire program.
On May 25th, just 11 days later the repair mission launched with these words:
"And Houston, Skylab Two with you... We fix anything." -Skylab Mission Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad
Double exposure of Skylab 1 (left) and Skylab 2 (right) launch vehicles. They were actually separated by 1/2 mile.
Despite this cheerful start, the astronauts faced an incredibly difficult and dangerous task. The crew worked for five hours at a time inside the space station that was super heated to 130F, eventually stabilizing the craft and completing all of the scientific objectives of the mission.
Along the way, the crew survived many challenges, including a failed attempt to free the shield by pilot Paul Weitz in which he tugged on the shield with a ten foot pole while hanging out of the airlock. This EVA almost ended in disaster when the space station’s stabilization engines fired in response to violent tugging. They also set an endurance record for the longest human spaceflight.
The spaceflight record, broken by each subsequent Skylab mission, ultimately became one of the most important aspects of the entire program. The video below explains how NASA and science benefited from these early experiments and the connection to the achievements of today’s International Space Station.
Paul Weitz signed certificate received with Mix Tape acquired at auction
The Mixtape Specimen
And just like today’s astronauts, the crew of Skylab spent some of their down time listening to specially prepared mix tapes tailored to their interest. Paul Weitz brought along four tapes on the trip. His selections included the Sons of the Pioneers, Johnny Cash, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Beethoven, Henry Mancini, Andy Williams, Wayne Newton, and Pat Boone. We were fortunate to acquire one of these tapes at auction.
Considering the age of the magnetic tape, the first thing we wanted to do is preserve the audio. We wanted a professional audio engineer to handle the preservation so we went to friend of Mini Museum, Jeff Tucker.
Jeff in his studio, Art of Music
The process of dubbing a mix tape is fairly straight forward. The tape is played at normal speed, with track markers placed between songs. Jeff listened to it through the monitor speakers in the studio.
Back in the lab, the main challenge with preparing the magnetic tape for inclusion is protecting it from the heat of the acrylic curing process. We managed this by sealing it in resin. Long strips are laid out and then coated with resin.
Astronaut Mix Tape in early stages of preparation.
After curing at room temperature, strips are carefully cut to length using a precision bench shear. From there, each specimen is trimmed closely by hand.
Trimming Astronaut Mix Tape.
Like all of the detail work on the Mini Museum, the trimming process requires focus and time, but we had the benefit of listening to the digital recordings made in Jeff’s studio.
The full track listing appears below, and we thought we'd would follow Scott Kelly’s example and create a playlist for the Astronaut Mix Tape on Spotify if you’d like listen.
"Music has touched cultures all over the world since the earliest times in human history. It has long been a meaningful staple in life. It is a huge part of my life back on Earth. But when living in a place isolated from the rest of the world like here aboard the International Space Station, it becomes more significant. I imagine music will be equally as important to future space travelers as we go further beyond our global sphere."
-NASA Astronaut and ISS Commander Scott Kelly