If you're looking for a quick audio overview of NASA's history, the space agency just released about 60 short clips that give us enough historic soundbites and out-of-this-world sounds -- "Earth's Song" is particularly beautiful -- on Souncloud to cover more than 50 years of history.
However, while the Souncloud NASA thing is really cool, listening to it us got us hungering for more Houston-centric audio clips. The craving led us to NASA's section of the Internet Archive (an incredible nonprofit devoted to digitally preserving everything it possibly can to prevent a "digital dark age") where we found a trove of longer audio files about the entire space program.
These days both Houston in general and the Johnson Space Center in particular have been sidelined by NASA. But Houston, Space City, used to be at the center of it all, and you need look no further than these NASA archive recordings to be reminded of the vital role the folks at JSC once played in our quest to send people from the Earth to the moon and to infinity and beyond, to quote Jules Verne and Buzz Lightyear, respectively. (Now we're trying to lasso an asteroid and have some vague aims for heading to Mars even as the commercial spacecrafts we were counting on using have, well, blown up.)
But it wasn't that long ago that Houston was the place to be, the spot where space travel history was made and, more importantly, recorded. The NASA Audio Collection is administered and maintained by the Houston Audio Control Room at JSC, according to the website.
The audio files offered up on the site were digitized from original reel-to-reel tapes (they used all kinds of formats over the years) dating back more than 50 years. The engineers are still working on digitizing all of the tapes -- and considering how much NASA stuff was recorded over the years, even in the days when a lot of stuff was not recorded, it stands to reason there are probably a whole bunch of tapes -- and adding to the online archive as they do these updates.
The whole thing is pretty nifty and it's worth a bit of time to dig through and listen to the various historical tidbits already posted. However, we've picked out some of our Houston-centric favorites just to give you an idea of what's out there. Here are our top four picks:
4. Apollo 13, the parody. "Houston we've had a problem." Everyone knows those famous trouble-is-coming words, uttered by Jim Lovell right after an explosion during the Apollo 13 mission. That was the moment that a fairly routine flight to the moon -- because somehow flights to the moon were already becoming "routine" by the third trip -- became a quest to bring three astronauts home alive, which people know about from either the thing itself or the awesome, if somewhat inaccurate, movie by Ron Howard.
However, we're betting you didn't know there was an Apollo 13 parody, complete with soundbites from the astronauts -- the Lovell bit is probably repeated at least 20 times -- some very fancy NASA officials (NASA legend Chris Kraft stands out in particular) and some chipper renditions of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" that cue up when an announcer talks about how bad things are for the Apollo 13 crew. The audio was discovered on an unlabeled reel in the Mercury Control Center and donated by NASA legend Gene Kranz. No word on how or why this thing was actually created, but it's a strange and wondrous thing.
3. Paralyzed by the Stardust Cowboy. In the early days of the manned spaceflight program a tradition started where Houston's Mission Control always played a song that was beamed up to the astronauts as a wake-up call. It was never difficult to pick a song in the early missions because they usually lasted seven to 10 days. However, once Skylab got going the guys down at the JSC had to start getting creative to come up with different songs to play, according to former-Mission Controller Terry Watson.
Enter the Stardust Cowboy. His name was Norman Odam before he became legendary. Odam, born in Lubbock, was always fascinated with space travel as a kid. When he hit his teen years Odam combined his fascination with space and the Old West to become the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He added "legendary" for obvious reasons. "I am a legend in my own time," he writes in his autobiography. (He also swears that the fact that his initials are LSD is a total coincidence.)
Anyway, the Ledge, as he is known by fans, pioneered the psychobilly genre and in the late 1960s he came up with an idea for "a wild song that would captivate everybody." He performed the song "Paralyzed" at local talent contests and recorded it in Fort Worth in 1968. The Ledge did the vocals and played Dobro guitar and bugle while T-Bone Burnett played drums. The recording featured a bunch of snarls, growls, yelps, yips, some fun vocalisms and occasional shouts of the song title ("Paralyzed"). There were 500 singles pressed and issued and the song got popular in the area, got picked up by Mercury Records and actually ended up in the Billboard Top 200.
One of those singles also apparently ended up in Mission Controller Watson's hands. When they were looking for the proper wake-up song for the astronauts, Watson brought in his copy of the song and played it for Mission Control. Everyone loved it and they gleefully cued the song up for the following morning. Watson was at the altitude control panel when the song started playing up in space and he saw the whole spacecraft jolt when the Ledge let out his first yip-yowl-howl.
However, crew performance sucked that day so "Paralyzed" became one of the only songs ever banned by NASA headquarters. It also became that particular Mission Control team's theme song, so they played it on the JSC Mission Control loudspeakers whenever they got the chance.
2. JFK's Moon Speech at Rice. Everybody knows the gist of this speech and its famous quote. President John F. Kennedy was working hard to sell the space program to the public when he arrived at Rice University on September 12, 1962. It's worth listening to the whole speech though, because Kennedy worked hard to both make manned space flight look good to the nation but he also tailored this speech to appeal to the people of Houston, Texas. There was this:
"This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.
So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward--and so will space."
And then there was this:
"Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
JFK was a master orator and he really brought his A-game to that speech. He gave us reasons that Houston had been given the manned space flight, aside from the more basic one that his vice president was Lyndon B. Johnson.
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1. An in-depth audio history of NASA. Some may be satisfied with the Soundcloud Cliff's Notes version, but for those wanting something between Soundcloud and listening to NASA's entire archive (which we're betting would take a very long time) there is the history of NASA. It starts with the public introduction of the seven Mercury astronauts, JFK's first roll-out of the plan to send a man to the moon, to the key radio communications between Mission Control and the Astronauts during Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. And it's not just the "one small step for man" happy stuff.
Houston gets mentioned a lot. Over the course of this hour-long history, Neil Armstrong says "Houston," making it the first word ever spoken on the moon. But there are other more obscure Houston shout-outs. During Gemini 4, Edward White performed the first spacewalk. However, it turned out that he couldn't hear the transmissions from Mission Control when he was out on his space stroll. Gus Grissom and the other guys down in Houston were telling White to get back into the spacecraft but White didn't hear them.
NASA astronauts were known for their cool, detached voices (as Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Right Stuff) but as White continued floating around space you could hear the exasperation creeping into the edge of Grissom's voice. "Hey Gus, I don't know if you read, but we're right over Houston," White said, clearly enjoying the view. The edge didn't leave Mission Control's communication until White finally heard and then agreed to go back inside. It's these exchanges that make the history worth a listen.