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.”