Astronaut Explains the Psychological Reason a Guitar Is on the ISS

It's about more than just the music.

Besides being the first Canadian to walk in space, Commander Chris Hadfield was known for his musical stylings onboard the International Space Station. When his 2013 rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was captured from the ISS, it garnered millions of views, giving the famed Larrivée P-01 parlor guitar the best advertisement in the solar system. But the Larrivée guitar wasn’t there for publicity; it was part of a NASA psychology program.

On Sunday, Hadfield responded to Twitter user Eren Uzun’s question about the now-famous guitar and what possibly made the instrument ISS-friendly. “Did you bring your own guitar to ISS or did they gave you a special one? (non-flammable etc)” they asked. Hadfield clarified that NASA put the guitar on ISS in summer 2001 because it was good for mental health.

While the physical stresses of life in space are well-documented, in 2001, NASA was becoming increasingly concerned with the psychological stresses that come with space travel, especially now that astronauts were spending longer amounts of time in orbit.

“The Apollo guys, some of them hadn’t had time to think about what this was going to be like. And they didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. So a couple of them came back fundamentally changed, religiously. Or alcoholic,” Hadfield explained to the Guardian after his “Space Oddity” cover went viral. “Because they couldn’t handle the change in perspective: to be able to cover up the world with their thumb; to see themselves that way.”

Carl Walz (right) plays the keyboard for a group of astronauts onboard the International Space Station


NASA found that many astronauts connected emotionally by playing music and it helped the scientists in space maintain perspective. The guitar was transported to the ISS by Space Shuttle Discovery, mission STS-105 in 2001. The ISS has also welcomed a flute, a keyboard, a saxophone, and an Australian didgeridoo, giving astronauts a creative outlet for when they’re onboard the satellite. Many of these astronauts, such as Carl Walz and Ellen Ochoa, jammed while in space and found playing music to be emotionally soothing during an otherwise high-stress gig.

“It’s a link to home,” Walz said of the NASA’s music program. Like Hadfield, Walz was even part of Max Q, a Houston-based, all-astronaut rock band formed by Robert L. Gibson, George Nelson, and Brewster Shaw.

The Twitter user who asked Hadfield about the guitar’s flammable nature did have a point, though. NASA scientists were reluctant to allow such a flammable item onboard, so they selected a small Larrivée that is relatively compact for a guitar and made sure the varnish didn’t contain anything high-octane, like benzene. The only flames it’s producing is from the occasional guitar solo.

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