Did Apollo 10 Hear The Music Of The Spheres?
We think of space as a vacuum. In fact, because there’s no air, every time you hear a laser blast or spaceship engine in science fiction, no sound should be created because there’s no air for the sound waves to reverberate through – the only TV shows that got that right were the original pilot of the revamped Battlestar Galatica and of course, the most mourned show in the history of television, Firefly.
Remember Alien’s tagline? In Space No One Can Hear You Scream? They were playing off the idea that there is no sound in a vacuum. And let’s be honest, it still is a badass line.
That doesn’t mean that it’s completely silent in space, however. There are electromagnetic vibrations that occur naturally even in the vacuum and our Voyager space probes have recorded them, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
This past week, it’s come up again that the Apollo astronauts on Apollo 10 heard some kind of weird “space music” while they were orbiting the moon. A Science Channel documentary had something called NASA’s Unexplained Files and that’s what caused the online hullabaloo. So much so that CNN has had to cover it and NASA has issued an official response and finally recently released the audio. So, what did those astronauts hear?
Apollo 10 was the last mission to prepare for the actual moon landing that would happen in July of 1969. As the astronauts lost radio contact with mission control in Houston and went around the far side of the moon, they started hearing something in their radios. Here’s the quotes from the lunar module talking to the command module:
LMP: That music even sounds outer-spacey, doesn’t it? You hear that? That whistling sound?
LMP: Whoooooo… Say your – –
CMP: Did you hear that whistling sound, too?
LMP: Yes. Sounds like – you know, outer-space type music.
CMP: I wonder what it is.
Okay, well, the non-crazy people of the world are explaining it as just radio interference when the radios of the lunar and command modules came near each other, kind of like how you hear feedback from your guitar when you play to close to your amplifier. The pilot of the Apollo 11 moonshot, Michael Collins, heard about it too. He even mentions it in his book, saying it would have “scared the Hell out of him” if he wasn’t warned that he might hear some radio interference during the flight.
While everyone else buys the radio interference theory, Astronaut Al Worden said that “logic tells me that if there was something recorded on there, then there’s something there.” So, if there was something there, what could it have been?
Back when I was a wee child, I used to watch a show with my father on Sunday nights called The Mechanical Universe. (It was usually before some British comedy on PBS, so eventually we were rewarded with some UK follies after all of the high-minded science business. He would tape it to show on slow days in his high school science classes.
They would feature astronomers and physicists and sometimes do dramatic re-enactments of the famous stargazers. While my favorite astronomer was Tycho Brahe (the man with the Golden Nose who deserves his own podcast sometime), his brother in arms Johannes Kepler always interested me as well.
While Copernicus (Polish pride forever!) was the righteous dude that helped prove that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Johannes Kepler is famous for deriving that the orbits of planets around the sun are not circular, they’re elliptical.
Kepler loved writing like a fourteen year old school girl telling her diary about her first breakup, here’s example:
“I was almost driven to madness in considering and calculating the matter. I could not find out why the planet (Mars) would rather go on an elliptical orbit…. With reasoning derived from physical principles agreeing with experience, there is no figure left for the orbit of the planet except for a perfect ellipse…. Why should I mince words? The truth of Nature, which I had rejected and chased away, returned by stealth through the back door, disguising itself to be accepted….I thought and searched, until I went nearly mad, for a reason why the planet preferred an elliptical orbit.”
Kepler in, Astronomia Nova (1609)
This guy loves astronomy so much, it nearly drove him mad! I’m not a scientist, but I’ve read plenty of research papers and zero of them are written like the authors are protagonists in a H.P. Lovecraft novel, slowly being pushed to the brink of madness by their quest.
Anyway, what Kepler wrote a book called Harmonices Mundi, translated as Harmonies Of The Worlds. The whole idea is that ratios that are found in harmonies of music can also be found in the speeds of planetary motion. This idea actually came from Pythagoras (the dude that helps us out with triangles) and it was rumored that he was actually able to hear this mystical “music of the spheres” that showed that the sun, moon, and planets revolved around the earth in spheres whose ratios could be explained in pure musical intervals (thirds, fourths, fifths, etc… not jazz.)
So, the relationship of music to heavenly bodies has been around for a long time. If you come at the universe from the perspective of it being created by a higher power, it’s easy to think that patterns that exist in one place exist in another. It’s also important to realize that a lot of the greatest discoveries in human history came from people were religious and often mystical.
Oh my God, my back!
Kepler was doing his research in a world where astronomy was connected closely to astrology and he made the discovery of elliptical orbits while he was stargazing his way into a universe he believed was organized by a higher power. While those beliefs might feel ridiculous to today’s scientists, there’s a certain imagination that drives them that I can’t help but think is helpful.
Sure, it might have been radio interference that those astronauts heard. But a little bit of me prefers to think it was Kepler’s Music of the Spheres that was making the noise!