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.