'What a Beautiful View': Early Recordings About Space Travel

benham_children_listening.jpegAt 11:29 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched for the last time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I sat in awe of the live feed on the NASA website, witnessing the final Shuttle take off with people all over the world. Thirty years after the first Shuttle launched, it is strange to think that we'll no longer see these beautiful and familiar ships lift off and disappear into the sky. There's a little Shuttle-shaped hole in my heart now.

Watching the launch reminded me that Folkways had some space-themed documentary recordings that I had never listened to. Moses Asch made more than folk music records -- being an audiophile, what he really wanted to do was create a catalog of the world's sound. Leaps in sound production quality during the space age made it possible to make scientifically useful recordings that also managed to capture the wonder of the time.

On October 4, 1957, Russian scientists, from somewhere in Russia, fired the rocket that put the first artificial satellite into an orbit going around the world once in about 96 minutes. Man's first artificial satellite is called "Sputnik," Russian for traveler.

So begins Folkways Record FX 6200 Voices of the Satellites!, a recording I never thought I would listen to from beginning to end. Narrated by Professor T.A. Benham of Haverford College and released in 1958, it predates human spaceflight. As a result, it provides a fascinating look at not only the history of space exploration, but the world's reaction to it. The album consists of the recorded radio signals of the first fourteen American and Soviet satellites, as well as the heartbeat (!) of the first creature sent into space, Laika the dog. It's a whole lot of beeping, but the exclamation at the end of the record's title says it all: The fact that people could listen to sounds emitted by "man's first space travelers" was exciting.

Folkways issued another documentary album in 1964 chronicling space exploration called Man in Space: The Story of the Journey (FX 6201). Originally a Voice of America radio program, it tells the story of the the first manned Mercury mission in May 1961 where Alan Shepard became the first American in space. I find the second track of this album especially poetic, so I will present the transcript here in full:

Our story begins on the morning of Friday, May 5th, 1961, at 34 minutes past the hour of ten, at Cape Canaveral in the state of Florida. A man touches a button, the touch ignites the engines of a powerful rocket standing not too far away, gleaming white in the powerful light of the tropical sun. With a roar and a blast of flame, the rocket starts to lift straight up. For the hundreds of men and women who usually work at Cape Canaveral the launching of a rocket has become almost routine, but not in this case. For at the top of the rocket, inside a strange looking vehicle that looks something like a child's toy top, there was a man.

He is at this moment inside the cone shaped capsule perched atop the missile, awaiting the final seconds of the countdown which is already begun. The rocket itself is in full view. It is a gleaming white Mercury Redstone rocket, towering nearly 83 feet into the sunny sky, and is a modified version of the one that helped push America's first satellite into orbit some five years ago.

Holy Moley! Can you imagine? Later on we hear the Mercury Control Center quote Shepard as saying "What a beautiful view." (Bonus! You can see that view here.)

These recordings are gems of the Folkways Collection. Time capsules of the era's fascination with space travel, they were made before we sent a man to the moon, before we landed a rover on Mars, before we sent satellites beyond our orbit and off to the farthest reaches of our solar system.

From satellite beeps to astronaut tweets, space travel will continue to fascinate us. The age of the Shuttle might have come to a close, but as evidenced by the tremendous progress we've made since these albums were issued, we have a whole lot to look forward to.

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This post was first published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

Image: "One day I came home to find two of my children, Connie and Roby, intently listening to Explorer IV ... they were thrilled to discover that the satellite had passed overhead at a height of 615 miles, heading Northeast." From FX 6200 liner notes.