A Flute Solo By Musical Astronaut Graces Space Station

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman playing the flute on the International Space Station Feb. 9, 2011.
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman playing the flute on the International Space Station Feb. 9, 2011. (Image credit: NASA TV)

It was a sea shanty turned space shanty. From 220 miles above the Earth, Cady Coleman brought out her flute aboard the International Space Station to play a melody about a seafaring vessel.

"It's about an old sailing ship, sailing the oceans, being away from home," the astronaut said in an NPR interview about her performance yesterday (Feb. 9). "And that's the kind of perspective you can't help but have when you're up here, looking down at the Earth, and you think about the early explorers.

“Here we are, more recent explorers, but we all have some things in common and there are jobs that we have to do far from home."

The song, called "Bluenose," was written by Canadian folk musician Stan Rogers. (Bluenose, according to the somber lyrics, is "the last of the Grand Banks schooners.")

Coleman played the tune on her personal flute, which she brought into orbit to practice on between shifts as an Expedition 26 flight engineer on the station. Coleman, a NASA astronaut, is one of the six current residents of  the orbiting laboratory.

"Up here, it’s a big place, and yet there's six of us that are here all the time, and one of the ways that you get along is just to be able to create your own world and have a place that you can go to," Coleman told Houston's KHOU-TV. "And for me that's by playing music. So it's been really nice to play up here."

The Expedition 26 mission is commanded by Scott Kelly, brother-in-law of wounded congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  His twin brother Mark – Giffords' husband – is slated to command the space shuttle Endeavour mission in April.

In addition to her own flute, Coleman packed three from well-known musicians: an old-style flute called a penny whistle on loan from Paddy Moloney, leader of the Chieftains, who play traditional Irish music;  an old Irish flute from Chieftains member Matt Molloy; and a flute from Ian Anderson, founder of the band Jethro Tull.

Coleman said she carried the flutes with her to space to reach out to the music community.

"One of the things I think it's important to do is to try to share how amazing it is up here and relate to different groups of people," Coleman said. "I relate to flute players, and I just wanted them to understand what a cool place it was and how many possibilities there were to play music up here on the space station."

She said weightlessness hadn't affected her flute playing too much, and that some parts of the station even have decent acoustics.

"I've actually been having really the nicest time up in our cupola," she said. "It's a module that has windows all the way around, and I end up, I just basically float around in there and a lot of times play with my eyes closed. The nicest part of it for me, besides the view, is that nobody can hear me play in there if they're in some other part of the station."

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.