Musings on Apollo 11 and Music

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The Apollo 11 lunar lander Eagle returning to the Columbia command module for the journey back to Earth. Photo: NASA

The Apollo 11 moon landing that took place on July 20, 1969, represented a staggering achievement for the human race. The desire to explore outside the earth’s boundaries reached back to Mesopotamia, ancient Babylon and Persia, also with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, and later with cosmologists Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and Galileo’s observations. While Einsteinian physics had unlocked more information about the universe, nobody ever viewed the earth from the moon until 1969.

President Kennedy promised in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and he put forward the resources to make it happen. The Apollo space capsule and the computer systems of Mission Control in Houston are primitive by today’s standards, but the astronauts made the voyage there and back in eight days. Rocket scientist Wernher von Braun said of the moon landing, “What we will have attained when Neil Armstrong steps down on the moon is a completely new step in the evolution of man. For the first time, life will leave its planetary cradle, and the ultimate destiny of man will no longer be confined to these familiar continents that we have known so long.” 

Over the past fifty years since the landing, many musicians have found inspiration in the historic moment and responded in song. Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso was in a sweltering Brazilian jail when his wife handed him a newspaper with a picture of a little blue planet as seen from the moon. He was so moved by it that he later wrote the song “Terra” (“Earth”). Read the English translation of the lyrics here.

Brian Eno composed an ethereal, floating suite called Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks for the documentary film For All Mankind, which celebrates the earth’s beauty and the Apollo space program. An expanded edition of the soundtrack with 11 new tracks will be released on July 19 in celebration of the 50thanniversary of the landing. You can listen to the original remarkable sonic journey in its entirety below:

The electronic artist Michael Adam Kandel, aka Tranquility Bass, took his stage name from the Tranquility Base landing site in the Sea of Tranquility, the area of the moon where the Apollo 11 crew touched down. I’ve always liked his catchy tune called “Cantamilla.”

I learned from this past Sunday’s New York Times Apollo 11 special section that Duke Ellington composed and performed the song “Moon Maiden” for the event.

There have been countless tributes to this historic achievement over the years, some listed here in this New York Times article. I highly recommend the 2019 documentary Apollo 11, which tells the story with previously unseen footage from the development to the actual landing. You might also check out an interesting show called Apollo 11: the Immersive Live Show, playing at the Rose Bowl through August 11.

Fifty years ago, the magnificent sight of our planet earth seen from the moon as a small blue ball provided a spark in the environmental movement. This anniversary seems all the more poignant today as governments and climate-change deniers roll back environmental protections and cut down huge swaths of rain forests to plant soybean and palm oil trees. It is a dire situation–global warming will increase to the point where life as we know could be seriously threatened by 2050. One can only hope that this anniversary will serve as a reminder of what’s at stake back home on earth, even as we seek to return to the moon and continue to explore beyond our solar system.