Space-themed Music Excites the Imagination

Music inspired by space visions and exploration began in the 1960s and continues to be popular today. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Humanity's interest in space expresses itself not just in science and math, but through the creative arts. Space art is a very distinct sub-genre of art pursued by a wide range of artists, including more than a few astronauts. Space-based literature, usually classified as science fiction, has been around for a long time and has many fans. Space is also a huge part of cinema history stretching back from the current Star Wars and Star Trek productions to the 1902 cinema hit A Trip to the Moon.

Music with a space theme began back in the 1960s when the space race was going full speed and media interest was very high.  Space clearly had its influence on popular culture, including the rock music scene. With the continuing interest in astronomy, a distinct genre called "space music" also arose. It is composed largely using synthesizers and electronic keyboards and often evokes mental images of deep space. 

Exploring the Songs

The first rock hit with a space music theme was a  "Telstar" by the English rock group The Tornadoes. This instrumental, which reached no 1 in 1962/63, was named after one of the first communication satellites to be launched during the early years of the Space Age.

There were many other rock tributes to the stars of the space age. On February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn orbited Earth in his Friendship 7 capsule.  That led singer Roy West to compose and record "The Ballad of John Glenn". Walter Brennan and the Johnny Mann Singers followed up with "The Epic Ride of John H. Glenn". Meanwhile, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins recorded "Happy Blues for John Glenn" the same day of the flight after watching it on his landlady's television. 

The Moon exploration era generated its own share of musical tributes including Duke Ellington's "Moon Maiden," the Byrds' "Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins," and former Kingston Trio member John Stewart's controversial "Armstrong." Stewart's song talked of ghettos and starvation in the world but was not the putdown of the space program everyone thought it to be. "We could for one moment sit there and watch one of our kind walk on the moon." Stewart later recalled. "Where we have really failed we have also succeeded greatly."

The shuttle age also brought a round of tribute songs from Roy McCall and Southern Gold's "Blast Off Columbia" to the Canadian rock group Rush's "Countdown". In 1983, songwriter Casse Culver honored Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, with "Ride, Sally, Ride."

During the shuttle era, the Challenger disaster brought about more tributes. John Denver contributed "Flying For Me," which he never released as a single, but performed at a Senate hearing. It was lat er added to the 1987 multi-artist album "Challenger: The Mission Continues." 

Astronaut Ron McNair, a musician and one of the crew members on Challenger (which exploded on January 28, 1986) had planned to play and record an original saxophone composition while in orbit. The song, composed by Jean Michel Jarre called "Last Rendezvous," was eventually recorded and put on a tribute album 

On April 5, 1986, the concert "Rendezvous at Houston" drew more than a million people, earning it a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Jarre arranged for his song to be performed with Kirk Whalum sitting in for Ron McNair on the sax solo. The song, now called "Last Rendezvous (Ron's Piece)" was also included in the album "Rendezvous," which was produced after McNair's death. The piece was recorded by saxophonist Pierre Gossez. 

Musical Space Exploration

“Space Oddity” by David Bowie was written and recorded by the late David Bowie, was first released on July 11, 1969, just a week before the launch of Apollo 11 to the Moon. It became a hit around the world and has been performed many times. 1980s synth-pop musician Peter Schilling scored a hit with his sequel to David Bowie's "Space Oddity". This song ended on a happier note with Major Tom coming home instead of being lost in space. Another piece is Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home).”  The latest recording was by astronaut Chris Hadfield during his time aboard the International Space Station in 2013. 

Some say the real birth of space rock came from a series of singles from the California band The Byrds in the mid-sixties. After hitting the top of the U.S. charts twice with their electrified folk sound, lead singer and techno- enthusiast Roger McGuinn turned to space in 1966 with the songs "Eight Miles High", "5D (Fifth Dimension)" (a 2 ½ min version of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity !), and "Mr Spaceman." They were not very commercially successful at the time, but they did help start a musical revolution, and the next song on our list became one of their best known.

In March 1973, Pink Floyd released the album "Dark Side of the Moon." It moved fairly quickly into the number one position on the album charts and has stayed on the charts practically ever since. No other album has stayed on any chart for as long.

In 1997 novelty rock group, Smash Mouth burst on the music scene with their hit, the '50s-influenced "Walkin' on the Sun." Since then, they have continued to demonstrate their talent with a number of other excellent hits. 

Despite something of a decline in interest in space exploration, the public continued to have a fascination with space. Some of the most popular movies during the last part of the 20th century also had very popular soundtracks and their successors in the 21st century continue the tradition, such as 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters Of The Third Kind,  The Star Trek TV series, and movies, and the  Star Wars saga.

Modern-day Music Inspired by Space

The arts and music continue to keep space in people's minds and hearts. Hits such as Elton John's "Rocket Man" continue to find their way onto people's playlists. The music doesn't stop here, though. The genre of space music began in the late 1970s, performed by such artists as Geodesium (who started composing music for planetarium and space videos in 1977), vocalist and performer Constance Demby, soundtrack composers Brian EnoMichael Hedges, Jean Michel Jarre, keyboardist Jonn Serrie, and others. The genre is sometimes called "ambient" and often shows up in "chill" playlists on streaming services. The music is atmospheric, otherworldly, and clearly meant to evoke mental and aural images of space exploration and astronomy. 

What kind of space-inspired music and art will be big as humanity expands its exploration to reach for other star systems? As our knowledge of astronomy grows, and technology improves, tastes in music continue to change. It's not hard to imagine future musicians sending back their Mars-composed tunes to planet Earth for people to enjoy. Or, as some have done now, people could take naturally occurring signals from distant objects and weave them into compositions.  The future of space exploration and music will undoubtedly remain intertwined as artists find ways to express the beauty and excitement of the cosmos. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen