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Max Q performs at the STS–114 mission success celebration at Space Center Houston in 2005. (NASA)

Max Q Live

In space no one can hear you sing.

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.”

About Michael Cassutt

Michael Cassutt has co-authored DEKE!, the autobiography of astronaut Deke Slayton, as well as several novels and television scripts.

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