It was like a scene right out of a 1970s drive-in SciFi flick, complete with cheesy, analog “space music” produced with synthesizers and theremin… only in this case, it really happened.
According to NASA files that remained classified until 2008, astronauts during one of the American Space Program’s pivotal lunar missions reported hearing “space music” on their radios as they passed around the dark side of the moon… and much had been made of the unusual report once media outlets learned about it, in advance of a NASA “conspiracy” themed program that planned to discuss the affair.
Of course, we have a good idea by now what it was all really about… but we’ll to that shortly. After all, the presence of anomalous sounds in nature–even those which have reportedly have “musical” qualities–do pop up from time to time.
The story goes like this: two months prior to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, which marked mankind’s first arrival on the moon, a pair of astronauts orbiting the moon reported a strange whistling which reportedly sounded, to them, like “space music”. Official tapes, newly released, confirm the conclusion, with transcripts indicating astronauts Eugene Cernan and John Young were overheard proclaiming, “It sounds like, you know, outer space-type music.”
Lee Spiegel discussed the story early on (as of February 20, 2016) in a Huffington Post article, where Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden commented further on the spacey “whistling” his predecessors reported hearing:
“If you’re behind the moon and hear some weird noise on your radio, and you know you’re blocked from the Earth, then what could you possibly think?” Worden said.
“We’d had a lot of incidents where guys who flew in space saw and heard things that they didn’t recognize, and you wonder about all of that. I have a very open mind about what could’ve happened. It’s somebody’s hearsay evidence — it’s only a visual or audio event, which is hard to pin down. Recollection is one thing, but actual proof is something entirely different.”
Indeed, the tapes Spiegel described in his article do seem to indicate that sounds actually were being heard by the Apollo 10 crew, although their source had at that time, remained a mystery (thanks, due in part, to Cernan and Young choosing not to say much about the anomalous noises their radios had received). Shielded by the moon itself, any radio transmissions from Earth would have been effectively blocked until the Apollo spacecraft had completed the portion of its orbit where the obstructing lunar mass lay between our planet and the small crew of astronauts preparing for landing on the moon. Could the source of these strange sounds have been celestial, or perhaps even some natural phenomena of lunar origins?
Interestingly, UFOlogist Paul Stonehill wrote to me when the story about the Apollo 10 “space music” appeared, noting that there were similar stories told by Soviet cosmonauts, in which they described hearing what they likened to “whispering” during their early orbital missions. Whether these sounds had represented a physical phenomena, or one of psychological origins, is unclear.
American physicist William R. Corliss long catalogued anomalous noises that occur in nature. Among the varieties he collected and reported, many were described as being similar to “music” emanating from bodies of water, from beneath the earth, or from the sky. An overview of reports that describe such phenomena were presented in his book Earthquakes, Tides, Unidentified Sounds and Related Phenomena: A Catalogue of Geophysical Phenomena.
NASA has similarly gathered information on various anomalous sounds in nature, variously referred to as “tweeks”, “spherics” and, yes, “whistlers”. Generally, these noises are attributed to Earth’s natural radio emissions, as described late last year by a NASA spokesperson in an article appearing in the British Metro:
“If humans had radio antennas instead of ears, we would hear a remarkable symphony of strange noises coming from our own planet. They sound like background music from a flamboyant science fiction film, but this is not science fiction…. Earth’s natural radio emissions are real and, although we’re mostly unaware of them, they are around us all the time.”
The description above sounds remarkably similar to the kinds of “music” reported by the Apollo 10 astronauts. Could the sounds they were detecting in their orbit around the moon have been similar natural emissions, produced by the moon itself?
Perhaps that’s not the best guess, either. An engineer friend of mine suggested another possibility, which involves automatic gain controls on the Apollo craft’s radio, which may have even detected certain frequencies produced by the craft’s own equipment:
When you are in an area with “no signal” on your radio, what really happens is the automatic gain control (AGC) gets cranked up to 11. (Hopefully you have seen “Spinal Tap” to get the reference. ) With the gain cranked up, all sorts of noises can appear from man made devices. Motors for instance. My Maytag Neptune washing machine can be heard on a shortwave radio. As a ham, we call this QRM.
Servo motors are notorious for QRM (see this link for more). Think back to the SETI story where the mystery signal was traced back to a microwave oven.
Indeed, a quick look at the complete transcript of the discourse between the Apollo 10 astronauts indicates they had thought this was the case just as well:
Cernan: Boy, that sure is weird music.
Young: We’re going to have to find out about that. Nobody will believe us.
Cernan: No. It’s a whistling, you know, like an outer space-type thing.
Young: Probably due to the VHF [Very High Frequency] ranging, I’d guess.
Cernan: Yes. I wouldn’t believe there’s anyone out there. OK, Tom, I’m going to call up P20… We want to pressurize our APS here. You get your Rendezvous Radar breakers all In?
Additionally, USA Today later reported that, “Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, in a book published years later, said the noise was just interference between the lunar module and command module’s VHF radios.”
Indeed, the “space music” reported by the Apollo crew seems to have an explanation that, while perhaps not of emanating from Earth or the moon, nonetheless had been “closer to home” than realized at the time. But hey, it still makes for an interesting story.