Being a rock star in space sounds a bit like the next great reality TV show, but let’s be honest, when you’re a superSTAR, you’re allowed to have crazy dreams and then let other people figure out how it can be done.
When and if your band ever makes it up into space, it would be pretty unfortunate if you weren’t able to play music. So, before any would-be interstellar rock gods take off for the dark side of the moon, we should answer a simple question – Can you play guitar in space?
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While astronauts have countless responsibilities and tasks while working on a shuttle or the International Space Station (ISS), they eventually have free time to entertain themselves, and nowhere to go. It’s not as though there is a movie theatre or bar on the ISS. Playing and listening to music has actually been promoted and studied by researchers analyzing the psychological effects of long-term exposure to zero-gravity conditions.
In fact, over the past 40 years, there have been a number of musical astronauts living on the ISS, and the space station has been home to a flute, saxophone, guitar, didgeridoo, and even a keyboard. The original question of this article seems to ask whether it is “possible” to play guitar (or some other musical instrument) in space, and the short answer is…. Absolutely!
For astronauts to survive, there has to be a breathable atmosphere on any space station or shuttle, which means that music can be generated, transmitted, and heard.
However, the logistics and physical nature of zero gravity make it much more difficult (or at least very different) than playing an instrument on Earth. The lack of gravity means that both you and the instrument are floating freely, responding to every movement and force, making it a major challenge to keep the instrument in place while trying to play. For example, while playing guitar on Earth, the weight of the guitar, your arms, and your fingers help to keep the body of the instrument in place and your fingerings accurate. See, even Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield has trouble keeping his “axe” in place.
In space, where everything feels weightless, it is harder to judge the distance your fingers are moving on the frets, as the traditional weight and pressure relationship is completely absent. Every move that you make will have to be accounted and compensated for, as that force will be directly transferred to the instrument you’re holding. Essentially, musicians have to re-learn how to play instruments in space, adjusting how they hold the instruments and getting accustomed to the zero-gravity reactions to speed, breath, subtle body movements, and advanced playing techniques.
Staying in place is often achieved by standing in foot straps or secure chairs, while instruments like keyboards can be strapped down or secured. For smaller instruments, like the guitar famously played by Hadfield, who has since become a bit of a viral sensation, it simply takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, astronauts have plenty of time up there to perfect their techniques before performing via broadcast, like the one seen below.
What About A Space Walk Performance?
Unfortunately, we’ll never hear a rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on an actual spacewalk, because there is no atmosphere in space! Sound waves require air to travel, and although the guitar string would certainly vibrate, no sound would be produced. The same is true of any other instrument, even our voices. As the sinister adage from Ridley Scott’s Alien film warns us, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
So, while you’ll never be able to enjoy any true outer space rock operas, if you do manage to get yourself and a guitar up to the ISS someday, you can shred a bit with the other astronauts – just don’t lose your grip!