Think of the most important mixtape you ever made. Think about the weight of your choices, the consideration of each song as an ingredient that will either yield sonic gold or blow up in the exact directions of your face and dignity. Am I being dramatic? Absolutely: I don't know any other speeds. But I do know that one time I slipped a Bright Eyes song into the mix at a party in college and I still live with the shame.
Today, however, we're not talking about a mixtape that kept you from leaping out of your parent's Astro van while going through Ohio. We're talking about the tracks that accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they told gravity to get lost.
Fifty years ago, on the evening of July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed the Lunar Module Eagle on the surface of the moon and redefined what we think of as possible, and they did so with a soundtrack.
We all know the famous photos and quote, but lesser-known is the story of a new-fangled cassette recorder, an off-color comedian, and a crafty record producer who provided the mixtape for a new frontier.
The first question is how the astronauts even had the opportunity to listen to music, and the answer comes in the form of Sony's TC-50 handheld cassette recorder. A marvel of design in its day, the TC-50 boasted the title of world's smallest recorder while remaining reliable enough to be NASA's choice as a handheld option for astronauts to record field notes while on the job.
Now, since the tapes would ultimately hold the spacefarers' observations, there's no reason they couldn't serve another use up until that point. As the late industry maven Mickey Kapp put it in an interview with Vanity Fair last year, "They could put music on the tapes for the ride up, and then record over it with their notes later, because who cares?"
It was this penchant for lateral thinking and, let's say, disregard for convention that distinguished Kapp as a key player in making the lunar mixtape a reality. The son of an independent label founder from the '50s, Kapp's lengthy career saw him in roles from record producer to president of Warner Communications with plenty of roles in between.
In the midst of all this industry navigation, Kapp developed an uncanny knack for staying well-connected with both those in the music world and out of it, including astronauts. But just how did a man of many hats come to be the musical tastemaker for NASA? The short answer this time around: a comedian.
In 1961, eight years before Apollo 11, NASA's first graduating class of astronauts were at peak popularity, and Kapp wanted to make friends. To do so, he enlisted comedian Bill Dana and produced a novelty single called "The Astronaut." In the single, Dana plays his then-lauded but now unthinkable character José Jiménez, a Latino man slow on the uptake, who unwittingly gets shot into space (Kapp would release the LP Jose Jimenez In Orbit (Bill Dana On Earth) the following year, though Dana would renounce the Jiménez character later in life.)
After that, Kapp sent seven records to the Mercury astronauts, discovered two of them often quoted lines from the skit, and went down to a comedy club near Cape Canaveral with Dana in tow for some performances. His gambit paid off: the astronauts came to the show, delightedly participated in Dana's routine, and befriended Kapp.
"[Alan Shephard, Mercury astronaut] lived in Pebble Beach and I lived in Carmel, and I was honored to be asked to speak at his funeral. That's how close we were," Kapp recalls in Vanity Fair.
Now, the two knockout questions: How did Kapp get those tapes together, and what songs were on them? Let's start with the former. While his predecessors sat with a recorder up to a record player, Kapp used industry know-how to get access to the master recordings and keep his maneuverings on the sly in order to use them for free. After simply asking for each astronaut's favorite songs, Kapp "would develop a list of 30 or so songs, since I knew all the repertoire that was out there," as he told Vanity Fair.
As for the actual songs that made it into orbit, let's say they were less revolutionary than the mission they were soundtracking. Buzz Aldrin's mixtape featured easy-listening staples like Glen Campbell, Lou Rawls, and … Barbra Streisand. Neil Armstrong? He decided to leave no ambiguities in interpretation and selected the theremin-fueled ghost orchestra sounds of the 1947 recording Music Out of the Moon. It wasn't until Apollo 12 that astronauts embraced the sounds of the times and picked tracks like the Archies' "Sugar Sugar" and Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" to soundtrack their space odyssey.
Regardless of the particular choices, the astronauts who traveled nearly 234,000 miles half a century ago to stand on the moon knew that every journey, no matter how big, is better when you have your favorite tunes.