It’s a scene as familiar to Americans as a Friday night kickoff in September or a Fourth of July parade. The dance hall goes dark…a guitar chord twangs…the stage lights go up…and the band begins to play.
From This Story
The songs are familiar, since most of them go back 30 or 40 years. “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. The Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music.” Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
The group on stage, in Hawaiian shirts and baggy shorts, looks like a typical middle-aged cover band. But Max Q is anything but typical. Its members are active-duty astronauts.
The cable music channel VH1 used to run a series called Behind the Music, which chronicled the history of rock bands from youthful struggle to the inevitable dark days of booze and faded glory. Max Q had its start in NASA’s own dark days—the months following the January 1986 loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven. “Morale was terrible,” recalls Brewster Shaw, at the time a veteran of two missions, now a vice president at Boeing. “We were still mourning.”
One day in June 1987 the leaders of the astronaut office decided to do something to raise spirits. They enlisted Shaw and Robert “Hoot” Gibson to help plan a 1950s-style Saturday night sock hop, with ex-Navy pilot Sonny Carter as the DJ and master of ceremonies. Other astronauts were encouraged to come up with skits or karaoke numbers.
Then, as Gibson remembers it, “On Tuesday Brewster sticks his head into my office and says, ‘Hooter, what do you think about putting together a four-man band for this sock hop?’ ” Gibson’s fateful response: “Sure, why not?”
After all, he and Shaw were used to playing guitar together at parties. Shaw had also played with George “Pinky” Nelson, another member of the astronaut class of 1978. Nelson recalls, “Brewster and I used to go over to each other’s house, drink beer, play guitars, and scream into mikes, annoying our wives.”
That night, the three met to rehearse at Shaw’s house and immediately ran into a problem. Gibson says, “Brewster played rhythm guitar, didn’t want to play lead. Pinky could play bass or rhythm, didn’t want to play lead. I could play rhythm and I didn’t want to play lead either.... But my protest was the weakest, so I became lead guitarist.
“I went out to a local pawn shop and bought a Yamaha amp for $150 and a guitar for $75. You know it was quality stuff.”
Now all they lacked was a drummer. Shaw and Nelson knew that Jim Wetherbee, who’d been in the astronaut corps for three years but hadn’t yet flown a shuttle mission, owned a drum kit, which, it turned out, he hadn’t played in 17 years. Nevertheless, Wetherbee was invited to the Friday night rehearsal.