From Amur Waves to Pink Floyd: The music preferences of Soviet cosmonauts

October 18, 2020

Music is an integral part of all space missions. Familiar songs help cosmonauts wake up at the beginning of their working day, remind them of home and help them to fight melancholia.

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics has numerous stories to tell about the connection between space and music. Read on to learn about the songs and albums that have been played in orbit.

Amur Waves by Max Kyuss

Yuri Gagarin during cosmonaut training. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

We know that while waiting for his first takeoff aboard Vostok 1, Yuri Gagarin was listening to music. The transcript of his communication with the Mission Control Centre provides more insight into what kind of music was played for him:

8:14 Zarya 1 (Popovich): Yura, how are you doing? Bored?

Kedr (Gagarin): I wouldn’t mind some music.

Zarya 1 (Popovich): Just a moment.

8:17 Zarya 1 (Korolyov): Are they playing the music?

Kedr (Gagarin): Not yet. Zarya 1.

8:19 Zarya 1 (Korolyov): That figures. These are musicians we are talking about. Easier said than done, Mr Gagarin. Do you copy?

Kedr (Gagarin): I can hear it now, it’s a love song. Copy that.

Zarya 1 (Korolyov): A love song? Sounds good, Mr Gagarin.

At 9:07 am, Vostok 1 was launched from Baikonur and soon reached orbit. As the spacecraft was flying over the Russian Far East, it picked up a radio signal. Amur Waves was playing. This piece of music can be considered the first one ever heard in space.

Russian composer Max Kyuss wrote the Amur Waves waltz in 1909. Actor Serafim Popov added lyrics to the piece in 1944. The song became hugely popular over a few years and was a musical symbol of the Far East.

Tenderness performed by Maya Kristalinskaya

The Apollo-Soyuz crew. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

“The Earth is empty without you. How can I survive these couple of hours?”

The entire Soviet Union knew this song written by Alexandra Pakhmutova, Sergei Grebennikov and Nikolai Dobronravov. Tenderness became part of the Hugging the Skies album fully dedicated to pilots. Soviet cosmonauts were particularly fond of the song. The version by Maya Kristalinskaya was played in orbit countless times. For example, in 1975, it was used as a wakeup call for cosmonauts during the legendary Apollo-Soyuz mission of Soviet and US spacecraft.

NASA established the tradition of waking up astronauts with their favourite songs in the mid-1960s. Preparing for the joint Soviet-American mission, the two crews agreed on the songs that would be played in space at the beginning of a working day. Tenderness and Wake Up Sunshine by Chicago played on alternate mornings. Cooperation in space between the two superpowers did not stop at these two songs. On day, Soviet and American pilots woke up to Moscow Nights performed by an American jazz band.

The Apollo-Soyuz crew. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Tenderness is linked to one of the most tragic chapters in the history of space exploration. On 24 April 1967, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died during the landing of Soyuz 1. Not long before the landing, Komarov spoke to Gagarin who was his backup, and asked Gagarin to thank the creators of Tenderness for the song. After Komarov died, Yuri Gagarin made sure to fulfill the request of his friend and colleague.  

Poem About a Cosmonaut by Vladimir Vysotsky

Soyuz 26 crew members Yuri Romanenko and Georgy Grechko during cosmonaut training. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Vladimir Vysotsky was one of the most beloved musicians for several generations of Russian cosmonauts. The famous actor and poet personally knew many space explorers and felt deep respect for them. Vysotsky knew Yuri Gagarin as well and met with him several times. Vysotsky wrote several songs about space and cosmonauts. Poem About a Cosmonaut was his signature work about space.

In his book Cosmonaut 34: From a Splinter to Aliens, prominent Soviet cosmonaut Georgy Grechko recalled:

“I first read Poem About a Cosmonaut when Natalya Krymova showed it to me. I was stunned. It was so real. I thought it would have been impossible to describe being in space if you hadn’t been there. But Vysotsky somehow knew what it was like. I have been on three space flights and would not be able to express it so accurately even in prose.”

Yuri Romanenko and Georgy Grechko before their space flight. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

On 10 December 1977, Georgy Grechko and Yuri Romanenko went to space with the crew of Soyuz 26. Before the launch, the cosmonauts asked for a tape with Vladimir Vysotsky songs. The “space album” included Altitude, Moscow to Odessa, Sons Go to War and other songs. Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs basically helped the cosmonauts complete a unique achievement. Grechko and Romanenko set a record by flying in space for 96 days 10 hours and seven seconds.

The cosmonauts wanted to take Vysotsky’s tape back to Earth and present it to the musician but eventually decided to leave it for the cosmonauts that would take their place. Grechko and Romanenko only took the tape case and cover back, which they stamped with the space station stamp and wrote a thank-you note to Vysotsky. Vysotsky received his gift after one of his plays at Taganka Theatre.

The Dombay Waltz by Yury Vizbor

Vladimir Kovalyonok and Alexander Ivanchenkov during training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

Long space missions can be a serious mental challenge even for the most experienced pilots. Back on Earth, special concerts including performances by famous actors and musicians were organised during communication sessions to support the cosmonauts. Soviet singer and songwriter Yury Vizbor took part in one such event in 1978.

Cosmonauts loved Vizbor’s music. His songs about nature let them feel the warmth of their home planet. Many pilots would take tapes by their favourite singer with them on flights. Soyuz 29 flight engineer Alexander Ivanchenkov went even further and took a guitar into orbit.

He took out the guitar during a linkup when Yury Vizbor was to sing for the cosmonauts from Earth. Alexander touched the strings and started singing Vizbor’s The Dombay Waltz: “Skis stand by the furnace; Sunset is fading behind the mountain. It is the end of March; And time to go home.” The songwriter greatly enjoyed the “space” version of his song. Later he would recall that it had been the most memorable performance of his music.

Vladimir Kovalyonok and Alexander Ivanchenkov during cosmonaut training before the Soyuz 29 mission. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

The cosmonauts’ heroism inspired the Soviet songwriter. He dedicated several songs to them, including Let There Be a Launch, The Magnetism of Starry Space, Touching the Ground, and others. In August 1980, Vizbor wrote When We Return, which goes something like this:

Someday, it is hard to imagine when
Another day happens
When we, my friend, return to the place
We left long time ago.

Vizbor dedicated that song to his friend, cosmonaut Valery Ryumin who was in orbit at the time and was waiting to come home.

Delicate Sound of Thunder by Pink Floyd

The Soviet-French crew, Jean-Loup Chrétien, Vladislav Volkov and Sergei Krikalyov. Photo courtesy of the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics

On 26 November 1988, Soviet cosmonauts Alexander Volkov and Sergei Krikalyov and French pilot Jean-Loup Chretien took off aboard Soyuz TM-1 from the Baikonur Space Centre. The launch attracted huge attention as those watching it from Baikonur were French President François Mitterrand and members of the iconic British band Pink Floyd who presented the cosmonauts with a gift before the flight.

Musicians David Gilmour and Nick Mason and their manager Steve O’Rourke arrived in the Soviet Union in late November 1988. Not long before that, the band had released their first live album, Delicate Sound of Thunder. It was the band’s only record that was officially released in the USSR. After several interviews with Moscow journalists, the musicians went to Baikonur to meet the crew members of Soyuz TM-7.

Gilmour and Mason presented the cosmonauts with a tape of their new album that ended up in space. The tape’s plastic case was left behind to cut down on weight. The Pink Floyd gig became the first rock album to travel to and be played in orbit. The tape presented by the British musicians remained aboard Mir until the end of the space station’s service life. In March 2001, it was destroyed and the debris sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.


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