For seven and a half minutes on the night of July 20, 1969, Pink Floyd took thousands of BBC viewers to the moon. Of course, two men were already there: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronauts who became the first human beings to set foot on the lunar surface. However, the members of Pink Floyd—David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright—weren’t using science, calculus, and technology to transport people through space on that fateful evening. They were using music, specifically an improvised and largely forgotten song called “Moonhead.”
The piece isn’t ranked with Pink Floyd classics such as “Wish You Were Here” or “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Over the decades, “Moonhead” has remained one of the most overlooked entries in the band’s canon, despite its historic status. Pink Floyd was commissioned by the BBC to perform instrumental music live on the air as the Apollo 11 crew’s video and audio signals came streaming in across the emptiness of space, beating the Soviets at the race that had been spurred on by John F. Kennedy’s rousing moonshot speech in 1962.
Pink Floyd was uniquely qualified for the task. Syd Barrett, the group’s founding frontman, had parted ways with his bandmates in 1968, after his struggles with mental illness and drug use had made working with him almost impossible. But before he left, Barrett had stamped on the band a fascination with both science fact and fiction, as heard on such songs as “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” which Barrett either wrote or contributed to. By the summer of 1969, Pink Floyd was nowhere near the superstar level it would reach in the ’70s, but it was a cult band whose psychedelic explorations were firmly associated with outer space.