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.
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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.
Gibson recalls that he came up with the name Max Q, an astronautics term referring to a moment that happens shortly after every launch. “It’s the aerodynamic term for maximum dynamic pressure,” Shaw says, “and the equivalent of maximum noise.”
On Saturday night, Max Q took the stage in the open air at Walter Hall Park in League City, Texas, not far from the astronauts’ office at the Johnson Space Center. They played a few songs and closed with a medley of Chuck Berry tunes: “I started with ‘Rock and Roll Music,’ says Shaw. “Pinky followed with ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ Hoot did ‘Maybellene,’ and I finished with more ‘Rock and Roll Music.’ ”
That first appearance—preserved on a video recording that the original band members still guard zealously—could have been Max Q’s combined debut and swan song. Feedback from the rest of the astronaut office was enthusiastic, though. “We weren’t good,” Gibson reflects, “but we weren’t bad. Estella Gillette, one of the administrative staff, asked us if we would appear at a Fajita Fiesta. That was a month away, so we had more time to rehearse.”
Did they worry that their boss, the famously secretive George Abbey, might not approve? “No,” Shaw says. “We were doing this on our own time.” Besides, the Fajita Fiesta’s sponsor was George Abbey.
Not long after that, Steve Hawley, who’d been an astronomer before becoming an astronaut, told the musicians, “You need a keyboard player.” Just like that, the band had its fifth member.
Over the next several months and into 1988, Max Q expanded its repertoire until it could play more than two hours of music. They went on to appear at NASA-related events, as well as a Christmas party and two New Year’s Eve dances at a Holiday Inn not far from the space center. The band even did weddings, Gibson says. “We wound up playing like a real dance band, from 6:30 to 12:30 or 1 a.m.—four sets, fast songs, slow ones.
“We even won a battle of the bands at Clear Lake Park one day. The weather was so abysmal that none of the other bands showed up. So we won by default, and can legitimately claim to be ‘the award-winning Max Q.’ ”
Twenty-one years later, Gibson and the rest of the original Max Q members are retired from NASA, the band is on its third generation of astronaut musicians, and there are no signs of disbanding. Not even a rumor.
NO ONE’S QUITE SURE what percentage of NASA’s astronauts play musical instruments. Gibson puts it at 50 percent. But only a handful have joined Max Q, or even considered it. Rick Husband, commander of the ill-fated Columbia, was famed for his singing voice, but his musical tastes ran to church hymns. Others, like Ellen Ochoa, who in graduate school had been a flute soloist with Stanford University’s symphony orchestra, preferred classical music.
The musical background of the original Max Q members varied greatly. Shaw had joined a rock band called The Gentlemen while attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison. (He also owes his flying career to The Gentlemen. “Our drummer, Steve Schimming, had a private pilot’s license, and one day he took me up in his plane. From that moment on, I wanted to be a pilot.”)
Gibson had resisted a parental order to take up the piano, choosing instead to try the guitar. He even built one himself. “My dad bought me the electronic pickup, but that was all. So I literally got some boards and used HO train wire for the strings…. It sounded awful, but it was a homemade electric guitar.”
Nelson, who like Hawley was an astronomer before joining NASA, had played piano and cello as a kid. He also played rhythm guitar in “a pretty good garage band” in high school. “We’d do a show at the local armory or something, charging $2 a head,” he says.
Wetherbee had played drums with the Notre Dame University marching band for a year, but put away his kit when he joined the Navy. “I couldn’t take the drums on an aircraft carrier,” he says.
As the original Max Q members left NASA or moved on to different jobs, other astronauts stepped up to take their places. First came “Pepe,” Navy pilot Pierre Thuot. “I heard that Pinky Nelson was leaving after [mission] STS-26 in fall 1988. So I simply approached the band,” he says. Thuot had taught himself to play guitar in high school, and had kept playing during his time at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and in the Navy. But he’d never been in a band.
His audition number was the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” “I had to do it twice. The first time through, I didn’t have a monitor. Then Brewster turned up the amp, saying ‘You sound better when you can hear yourself.’ ”
The energetic Thuot quickly took over as the sound man and occasional business manager of Max Q, arranging bookings and practices, setting up the mixer and microphones, and keeping track of set lists. Kevin “Chili” Chilton had studied the clarinet “under duress” as a child, but had picked up guitar while attending the Air Force Academy. When Shaw left the band in 1989 to take a senior job at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the remaining band members started asking around the astronaut office, “Who owns a guitar?” Chilton spoke up, and that was that—no audition. “I’m not sure they had my amp turned on for the first few gigs,” he jokes.
Air Force flight test engineer Carl Walz had been a church accompanist in high school. “I also played keyboards and sang in a rock and roll band in Cleveland—The Fabulous Blue Moons—who had a repertoire very similar to Max Q’s, a lot of ’50s rock, Sha Na Na, Elvis.”
Walz joined Max Q after surviving a “put up or shut up” moment with a fellow astronaut candidate in a bar in Spokane, Washington, following a survival training trip. “I mentioned [having been in] The Fabulous Blue Moons, but Terry Wilcutt didn’t believe me, because I had been one of the quieter members of the group,” he recalls. Wilcutt challenged Walz to sing with the bar band. Walz “talked with the band, agreed on a couple of Elvis tunes, then rocked out.” The rave reviews got him an invitation to join Max Q.
When Steve Hawley transferred to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in 1990, Susan Helms, who had just been selected as an astronaut earlier that year, took over keyboards. Helms’ extensive musical background—she took piano lessons for 11 years, played concert drums and xylophone in marching bands and choirs, and had played in a jazz combo—came up during her astronaut candidate interview…with Hawley. “I don’t know whether he knew he was leaving for Ames at the time,” Helms jokes. “Maybe I was being scouted.”
She brought a new musical sensibility to the band. “Growing up, I listened to the entire range of music, especially pop, Top 40, everything but country and western,” she says. “I learned to be able to sit down at a party and play Elton John and Billy Joel hits.” Chilton says Helms “was hugely talented. She could hear a song on the radio, then play it. She was able to teach us harmonies.”
The original Max Q lineup had concentrated on music from the ’50s and ’60s—surf tunes like “Wipe Out,” The Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” plus instrumentals like Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” and The Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run.”
Another favorite was Led Zeppelin’s eight-minute masterpiece, “Stairway to Heaven.” Wetherbee knew how to play the recorder, and his bandmates were convinced that a flute couldn’t be too different. Nelson notes, “There are no drums in the early bars of that song,” so Wetherbee would start on the flute, then sit down to the drums. “I would do the early guitar parts, and Hoot would play the louder parts,” says Shaw. “We actually sounded okay on that song…right up to where the falsetto vocals started.”
When it came to deciding the set list, the band wasn’t always in perfect harmony. “Brewster hated ‘Proud Mary,’ ” Gibson recalls, “so we never played it.” But in general, there were no arguments. According to Steve “Stevie Ray” Robinson, who has been a member since 1996, “Max Q is the most polite, low-key band I’ve ever seen.”
With Max Q’s second generation, Helms and Walz introduced more variety to the lineup. There was still no country and western, and certainly no heavy metal, but, Walz says, “We were playing in the ’90s, so I got the music into the ’80s.” Helms added Van Halen’s “Jump,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” and the naval aviator favorite, “Danger Zone,” used in the movie Top Gun.
One thing all the members of Max Q, from the original lineup down to today’s, have agreed on: They don’t play space-themed songs like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Why? “Lack of talent,” says Gibson.
WHY WOULD PEOPLE whose schedules are already too full with classroom study, simulations, technical meetings, T-38 flights, and physical conditioning—not to mention families—give up precious free time for a hobby?
One reason was that Max Q’s appearances built morale among the band members’ colleagues. “Our busiest time was after the loss of Columbia,” says Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who replaced Pepe Thuot in 1995. “People seemed to want to hear us play. We had more gigs than we normally do—two or three events a month, as opposed to one.”
It has also given astronauts the chance to cultivate their more playful and creative sides. Says Jim Wetherbee, “Pinky Nelson used to say we had too much cerebral cortex and not enough brain stem. I memorized every note of every song, even though as a drummer I really didn’t have to. My dream was to be able to be good enough to get up and play by feel.”
In the mid-1990s, a new generation of players began to join. Hadfield had been playing in a different band in the Houston area when he was recruited. “I wouldn’t call myself the current leader, but I have been with the band the longest—13 years as of 2008,” he says. “So I’ve wound up being the M.C. a lot of the time.”
Gibson left NASA soon after Hadfield joined the band, and Steve Robinson was asked to take his place. Robinson had grown up in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was a hotbed of acid and psychedelic rock—“when the Grateful Dead still played high schools. The first record I bought was Blind Faith; the second was Donovan,” he says.
His own musical background was eclectic. As a teenager he had played tuba and trombone in the marching band before switching to banjo and bass. He went on to learn guitar and mandolin, and before coming to Houston had played with at least eight bands, in styles ranging from jazz to country. Currently he plays stand-up bass in a folk quartet called Bandella, with Max Q bandmate Hadfield, fellow astronaut Cady Coleman, and Micki Pettit, wife of astronaut Don Pettit.
Along with his musical experience Robinson brought something else vital to Max Q. “I had a truck that helped get us and our equipment to dates. We aren’t held to high musical standards, but we do have to get to gigs on time.”
With no manager arranging tours, and no albums to plug, bookings are somewhat ad hoc. Hadfield says, “Since there are so many of us, we are often approached individually for gigs.” The band members share the duty of arranging the venue, schedule, and payment, “depending on who has time to do it,” according to Robinson. “We don’t get paid; our fees go to equipment, and to pay a sound man,” says Hadfield.
The band’s biggest moment? According to Thuot, it was “the gig we did for the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 [in 1994], opening for Cheap Trick at the Houston Hard Rock Café. We did four to five songs, and since Carl Walz was in orbit that night on STS-65, we put his official NASA portrait on our mike stand.” A year later, on December 7, 1995, the band made a national TV appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
There’s been only one attempt to record Max Q professionally. “A Houston disc jockey named Mike Cahill wrote a song for us, ‘Another Saturday Night on Orbit,’ ” says Walz. “We all went to a studio at San Jacinto College, performed it, and left the mix to Cahill.” The DJ’s final product was wildly different from what the band had recorded. Recalls Walz: “Our biggest decision later was—Do we play that version in concerts? Or ours? We went with ours.”
Max Q’s lineup continued to shift in the 1990s as band members got assignments to the International Space Station. Susan Helms left in 1998 to train for Expedition 2. Ken “Taco” Cockrell replaced her on keyboards. In 2001, Walz had to give up his role as Elvis when he was assigned to Expedition 4. The new Max Q vocalist was Tracy “T.C.” Caldwell, who joined NASA in 1998 and made her first shuttle flight in 2007.
It’s never been hard to find recruits. Drew Feustel, a member of the 2000 astronaut class, was so eager to join Max Q that even though he’d never played guitar, he bought one and learned. The current members of the band include Hadfield, Caldwell, Cockrell, and Feustel, plus Dan Burbank and Ricky Arnold (guitar), Chris Ferguson and Kevin Ford (drums), Greg “Box” Johnson on keyboards, and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger on vocals. Occasionally, NASA flight surgeon Josef Schmid fills in on bass.
The lineup for any particular gig depends on who’s in town that night and what instruments they play. “We have never had the entire band on stage at once,” says Robinson. “There are actually 576 different combinations of Max Q, which is why we rarely see the same version of the band twice. Makes practicing difficult, but keeps the sound fresh.”
Max Q’s members have also done something no other rock band can boast: played music in space. Helms carried a mini-keyboard on STS-54 in 1993, but only to tap out a one-finger version of “Wild Blue Yonder.” Ten years later, Walz lived for half a year on the space station and had a keyboard with him. “I made sure to pick a model that wasn’t gravity-dependent,” he says. “I played it in my spare time for the first three months on the station, then, for variety, picked up the guitar.”
When STS-111 arrived during Walz’s stay in May 2002, the commander was Taco Cockrell, Max Q’s keyboard player. “So we made sure we found time to play a song—me on guitar, him on keyboards,” says Walz. “It was Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’ and we used the Leonardo module as our studio.”
Take that, Coldplay. Max Q may never know the thrill of playing to packed stadiums on a ’round-the-world tour. But its members have, in fact, circled the globe. Many times.
Michael Cassutt is a novelist and television writer in Studio City, California.