Wednesday, December 16, 2015

TMFW 119 - The First Song From Space

In my car, I have an XM subscription.  It's typically pretty great, but sometimes in a tunnel or a parking garage the signal will disappear.  When that happens, my instinct is to get angry and curse the radio, and I have to stop and remind myself that they are beaming music to my car from space.  There's a satellite up there shooting down over 150 channels, and it finds my car whether I am in the middle of Chicago or on a 2-lane highway in North Dakota.  That's way cool.   

In the vein of XM, today's TMFW is about the first ever song that was beamed down from space.  It was 50 years ago today.    

As told in this Smithsonian magazine piece, the occasion was the joint NASA mission of Gemini 6A and Gemini 7, which marked the first time that two orbiting objects successfully rendezvoused with one another in space.  That feat was accomplished on December 15, 1965, when command pilot Wally Schirra (and onboard computers) brought the Gemini 6 capsule within 1 foot of Gemini 7 and the two spaceships stayed in close orbit for four-and-a-half hours. 

Following separation of the two spacecraft, the astronauts were feeling rightfully celebratory.  So the Gemini 6 crew decided to have a bit of fun.  Just before the astronauts went to sleep on the morning of December 16, Schirra and his partner Tom Stafford "spotted" an unidentified object and reported it to their orbiting colleagues.  The transmission went like this: 

"Gemini 7, this is Gemini 6.  We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably a polar orbit.... He's in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio...Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon.... You just might let me pick up that thing...." 

From there, the Gemini 6 astronauts launched into a performance of "Jingle Bells," played on a tiny Hohner "Little Lady" harmonica by Schirra and accompanied by a set of jingle bells by Stafford.  Gemini 7's pilot Jim Lovell (later the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, and famously played by Tom Hanks in the excellent movie of the same name) responded "we got him too, 6!" and laughed.  Schirra then boasted "that was live, 7.  Not taped," and Mission Control in Houston chimed in "you're too much, 6."    

The whole exchange lasted less than two minutes, but you can hear in it the joy and pride and spontaneity and almost giddiness of the astronauts.  I love it.  You can hear the transmission (just the song) on Soundcloud, and the longer exchange on Youtube here.  

Schirra's harmonica and Stafford's bells now sit in the National Air and Space Museum, as part of the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.  Notice in the harmonica picture that Schirra rigged up his instrument with dental floss and velcro so that it wouldn't float away on him when he was doing real work.   

So there's your TMFW for today: on this date 50 years ago, two orbiting astronauts spied Santa's sleigh and made "Jingle Bells" the first song ever transmitted from space.  Ho ho ho.   


BONUS FACT:  My word-count-padding rumination on XM up there is a good excuse to link to this classic Louis C.K. "everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy" interview (most relevant part starts at 1:24.)  It's so true. 

BONUS FACT 1.5:  As fate would have it, this week's entry comes as I am traveling home from Paris, France.  I wrote today's TMFW on the plane and then posted it over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Newfoundland.  I almost literally can't understand how that is possible.   

BONUS FACT 2:  The idea of two spacecraft rendezvousing in orbit was a milestone that both the US and Soviet Union were chasing.  After the Americans had pulled it off in 1965, the Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev wanted to do it for the 50th Anniversary of the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia.  And Brezhnev wanted to one-up the Americans by having the two spacecraft dock with one another and then have a cosmonaut transfer from one ship to the other.  

Instead, the mission became famous for a more sober reason: the first human death from a space mission.  This gripping NPR story of the launch (which was later amended to qualify nearly all of the fantastical details) tells the sad story of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, who died on reentry of Soyuz 1 when his parachute failed to deploy and he crashed into the ground.  

According to the story, Komarov and others in the Soviet space program knew that the mission was doomed to fail, but nobody dared raise the issue to Brezhnev.  And Komarov would not back out of the launch because his friend - the national hero Yuri Gagarin - was the backup pilot and would be killed in his place.  So Komarov took the mission knowing it would probably be his last.

BONUS FACT 2.5:  Yuri Gagarin unwittingly started a cosmonaut tradition when, on his first launch in 1961, he asked the bus taking him to the launchpad to stop so that he could relieve himself.  Gagarin stepped out of the bus, walked around to the back, unzipped from his launch suit, and peed on the rear right tire of the vehicle.   

Since then, departing cosmonauts have maintained the ritual, which requires them to undo all of the zippers and fasteners on their spacesuits that had just minutes before been carefully put together and checked.  (Female cosmonauts are invited to bring along a vial of urine to splash onto the tire.)  Truth is stranger than fiction.   

BONUS FACT 2.75:  If you want to know more about Space rendezvous, Wikipedia's got you covered with this comprehensive timeline.  

BONUS FACT 3:  Leonid Brezhnev is one of the three "L.B."-initialed people namechecked in R.E.M.'s classic song "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."  The others are Lenny Bruce, Lester Bangs, and (of course) Leonard Bernstein.  

BONUS FACT 3.5:  Michael Stipe explained in an interview that the L.B. references came from a dream he had where he was at a birthday party and was the only guy there who didn't have those initials. 

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