Do Space Cowboys Ever Sing the Blues?

Specimen Notes from the Mini Museum: Astronaut Mix Tape

Nov 5th, 2015

Recently, NASA Astronaut and International Space Station Commander Scott Kelly noted that "music is a huge part of life in space". Kelly should know, he’s in the middle of spending a year in space with Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko.

Since this week also marks the 15th anniversary of the International Space Station, I thought it would be fun to share the details behind the Astronaut Mix Tape specimen, which represents Skylab and one of the most daring rescue missions performed in space.

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."

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.

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. I was very fortunate to acquire one of these tapes at auction.

Paul Weitz signed certificate received with Mix Tape acquired at auction

Considering the age of the magnetic tape, the first thing I wanted to do is preserve the audio. I wanted a professional audio engineer to handle the preservation so I went to my friend, Jeff Tucker, who I’ve worked with on other projects in the past.

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 and I listened to it through the monitor speakers in the studio.

Listening to the tape for the first time...

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. I manage 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.

Slices of Astronaut Mix Tape cut to length prior to final trimming.

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 I had the benefit of listening to the digital recordings made in Jeff’s studio.

Listening to Sons of the Pioneers while trimming Astronaut Mix Tape specimens (apparently by starlight?)

The full track listing appears below, and I thought I would follow Scott Kelly’s example and create a playlist for the Astronaut Mix Tape on Spotify if you’d like listen.

As you might imagine, listening to the music while preparing the Astronaut Mix Tape was very moving. I think the words of Commander Scott Kelly, mentioned above, are worth sharing here because they really took me back to the experience of working on this fascinating specimen.

"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

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I’m going to end with a short video clip from the archiving session with Jeff. While the music is a little melancholy, I’m very happy and excited about the next stage of this adventure!

Now, it’s back to work!

Hans Fex, Creator and Chief Curator for the Mini Museum

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