Space Column: The Long History of Space Wakeup Calls Astronauts from Gemini to the Space Shuttle Woke up to Tunes 

Read Time:10 Minutes

By Julian O’Connor, Chief Copy Editor 

How does one wake up in space if there are multiple sunrises and sunsets a day? The number varies based upon the orbit, but the International Space Station sees 16  a day. That definitely makes it very hard to keep track of time through conventional sun-based methods.  

Of course, digital clocks had been invented before the space program started sending humans to space, although not as early as one might think. The digital clock was only invented in 1956, so the obvious solution would be “just use a clock” and/or “have someone in mission control tell the astronauts”. While that can certainly be done, some people are hard to wake up from sleep, and much more importantly – it’s a lot more fun to wake up hearing “Fly Me to The Moon” when you can see the real Moon shining outside your window than just the voice of the Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) [2].  

From the Gemini program to the end of the Space Shuttle program, Mission Control in Houston has maintained the practice of sending “wakeup calls” to the astronauts. These wakeup calls often consisted of music, but were sometimes other things – including news and sports. Unfortunately for us, the history of NASA wakeup calls is… sporadic. Although the first recorded wakeup call was sent on the Gemini 6 mission, there weren’t wakeup calls for every mission after that, or if there were, they weren’t all documented [1].  

Luckily for us, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) historians, specifically a man named Colin Fries, are also interested in the history of wakeup calls. Fries has complied a history of wakeup calls from the first one on Gemini 6 to the end of the space shuttle program, as well as some statements about the history of and philosophy behind the wakeup calls [1].  

As for the philosophy behind the wakeup calls, according to Lynn Heinger, Acting Assistant Administrator for Congressional Relations, in a letter to Congressman Robert Michael in the year 1990, “The common element of all these selections is that they promote a sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps among the astronauts and ground support personnel. That, in fact, is the sole reason for having wake-up music; and it is the reason that NASA management has neither attempted to dictate its content nor allowed outside interests to influence the process.” [1] 

This tells us that although there may be other benefits to the wakeup music – perhaps in the public relations department, given that artists like Beyoncé and Paul McCartney have performed personal wake-up calls – the main benefit is psychological, that of getting the astronauts energized for their next day in space. [2]. 

According to the NASA document, astronaut Chris Hadfield says much the same thing: “You play some lively, peppy bit of music — normally just two minutes of it — and after a pause, you hear some groggy voice on the microphone mumbling, ‘Good morning, Houston,’…  You don’t want to play a dirge or something uninspiring. You want to get them going in the morning.” 

The first-ever wakeup call was a “Hey, Dolly” parody sung by crooner Jack Jones to the crew of Gemini 6, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford. After that, Gemini 7 had a variety of music played, including “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Going Back To Houston” right before retrofiring – firing the thrusters that would slow the spacecraft down enough for it to enter the atmosphere and return to Earth. The Gemini 7 mission landed on Dec. 18, 1965 [1].  

If there were wakeup calls for the Gemini 8 mission, they were either unrecorded or simply news or other benign transmissions. The same goes for Gemini 10 and 11, however Gemini 9 and 12 had music.  

Moving on to the Apollo program, Apollo 10 was the first Apollo mission to feature wakeup music, which included such tracks as “On a Clear Day” by Robert Goulet and “Zippity-do-da” as well as a “Bugle call for revile”. Apollo 11’s wakeup calls were news and sports.  

Apollo 12 had what was presumably specifically pre-written music, “The Yankee Clipper, Apollo 12”. There is no data for Apollo 13 or Apollo 14, and Apollo 15 had wakeup calls, including the “Theme from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey”.  Apollo 17 had wakeup calls that honored two of the three astronauts’ alma maters, including “Ride of the Valkyries”, a tune “regularly played on mornings of final exams at Caltech”.  

After the end of the Apollo era, America’s next manned spaceflight program was the Skylab project, which also featured wakeup calls, Skylab 3 including recognizable tunes such as “Girl from Ipanema”.  Skylab 4 included “A message from the people of Germany followed by German Christmas songs” on Dec. 7, 1973.  

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project also had wakeup tunes for the Apollo crew, although it is unclear if the Soyuz crew had the same pleasure.  

Moving into the Space Shuttle program, we learn more about NASA’s wakeup philosophy. According to the STS-79 spacecraft communicator Kay Hire:  “the wakeup music is selected by the astronauts working as CAPsule COMmunicators (CAPCOM) for the mission. Traditionally, the music relates to mission objectives or to specific crew members. The speaker units onboard the Shuttle were designed to annunciate alarm tones, so they do not reproduce music very well. Therefore, songs chosen for wakeup must be very recognizable to the crew.” 

Kay goes on to say that the songs can also not be picked for commercial opportunities and that their recordings must be widely available to the public, wrapping up by saying “Within the highly structured environment of a Shuttle flight the morning wakeup presents an opportunity for levity and a bit of shared camaraderie. It tends to stand out as a human element in an otherwise complex technical enterprise.”  

From Hire’s statement, we can again see that the important element of wakeup calls is the human factor. However, we can also see a transition in a quote from a “FLORIDA TODAY” article written by Chris Kidler on Dec. 17, 2002. “On shuttle, at the appropriate time, mission controllers in Houston send wake-up music to the crew,” Kidler stated,  “Mission control picks the songs, with suggestions from astronauts’ loved ones…  The station crew wakes up the “old-fashioned” way: the buzz of an alarm clock.”  

In Kidler’s article, we can see it mentioned that NASA had already begun to transition astronauts over to more traditional wakeup methods on the International Space Station, where they stayed much longer than before and had less rigid schedules.  According to NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries: :, “Some missions have two shifts, so there is someone awake 24 hours a day. On those missions, we don’t do wake-up calls. On missions when the crew is on the same shift, we send up one when they’re supposed to get out of bed.”  

We can see that astronauts during the Shuttle program were slowly transitioning to a life without pre-picked morning tunes. We can also see a change from the Apollo program, where the music was often picked the night before – now the wakeup calls are planned before the rocket even leaves the ground.  

The Space Shuttle program had wakeup calls through many of its missions, each catalogued in the 89 page NASA document. If you’re interested in reading more about them, I have provided the link to the document at the end of this article.  

On the International Space Station astronauts were allowed personal music devices, as well as occasional instruments and alarm clocks, allowing them to play their own music and wake themselves up. And thus, the era of wakeup calls for crewed missions ended.  

However, not only crewed missions got wakeup calls – robots like music too! The Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner Rover mission (the one mentioned in the book/film “The Martian” by Andy Weir”) received wakeup calls on various Sols (Martian days), originally a joke that the team liked so much they decided to make it a tradition. The mission had a variety of good tunes played, presumably related to its mission activities- the full list is also in the NASA document. 

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers also had wakeup music, which was chosen to wake up the local team in Mission Control and get them ready for an exciting day of controlling a spacecraft on another planet. and for the songs’ “link with the [rover’s] planned activities of the day”. 

So, there we have it – the history of NASA’s wakeup program. Although it is not currently running, there is some speculation that it may return for the Orion/Artemis flights planned – speculation that I, at least, certainly hope is true. I wonder what kind of songs they will play if it does return… speaking of, what one song would you have as your wakeup call in space, if you were an astronaut? Let us know on our social media!  

References:  

1. [https://history.nasa.gov/wakeup%20calls.pdf

2. [https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/a26229/nasa-wake-up-call/]  

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