Thursday, April 13, 2006

Music to the Moon: The Apollo X Music Tape

On May 18, 1969, Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan lifted out from Pad 39B of the Kennedy Space Center launch complex. Their next stop was the Moon. Their mission was the final "dress rehearsal" for the Saturn V, the Apollo spacecraft and the lunar module at the Moon prior to landing.

The trip to lunar orbit would take three days of coasting in deep space. Although the crew remained busy during the translunar coast phase of their mission, there were down times between chores. The crew had a special piece of home in the form of popular music of the time recorded onto a cassette tape by a friend to occupy them during such lulls in the flight.

The cassette tape was recorded by Al Bishop, who was an employee of Boeing at the time. Al hooked a cassette tape player to his stereo and recorded several of the more popular musical artists of the day. Artists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and The Kingston Trio were included on the tape. Mr. Bishop used songs like "Fly Me to the Moon", "Going Back to Houston" and "Moonlight Serenade" to provide a theme befitting a flight to the Moon. Gene had pretty good taste for the popular music of the time.

When the crew returned from the mission, they designed and had constructed a presentation plaque with the actual music cassette. Tom, John and Gene presented it to Al Bishop as gift of gratitude from providing them with some entertainment during their trip to the Moon. When Mr. Bishop passed away, his widow gave it back to Gene Cernan. Gene kept it in his collection for a number of years before parting with it himself.

In the photograph shown above, Gene is displaying the tape presentation while at his home in Texas.

Gene wrote a brief certification "Flown on Apollo X" on the reverse side of the presentation plaque. He signed the plaque using Eugene A. Cernan. Which indicates that Gene signed the artifact when he first started identifying his collection as he only uses Gene Cernan now. I learned that from Gene in December of 2005 during our visit together in Tucson.

In August of 2006, Gene told me that he and Al Bishop spent the afternoon lying on the floor of Al's living room recording all the music on this tape. The quality of the tape reflects that type of early private recording with miscues, skips and clicks that an older record album would make on a turntable. That is what makes the tape so good for historic purposes. These two men took the time to sit, choose and record music for a flight to the Moon.

I was able to gently open the display and extract the tape from the display. After 37 years, the tape still functioned. The music was downloaded into my computer. A compact disk was burned of the music and presented to Gene for his listening pleasure.

Every once in a while I put on my copy of the CD and listen to Frank Sinatra sing "Fly me to the Moon" and know that in this particular case the song really did journey to the Moon.

There is a new development as of 5-19-2005. There are three clarinet instrumentals towards the middle of the album. The songs and arrangements were familar, but I could not remember the musician at the time. I have since found out that the clarinet player, composer and arranger of those melodies was a gentleman by the name of Acker Bilk. He lives in England and stills tours. I contacted him via his website ( and told him the story of his music going to the Moon. Mr. Bilk was requested a copy of the CD. During my meeting with Gene in the summer of 2006, I pointed out that I had found Mr. Bilk. Gene remembered his music and his hit single "Stranger on the shore." It is always interesting to find connections to artifacts.