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.”)