Houston, we have a hit

  • Cady Coleman of Shelburne Falls floats in space with a flute. She will be performing with Bandella, a band comprised of former astronauts and their spouses, at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield Saturday beginning at 7 p.m. Contributed photo

  • Chris Hadfield playing guitar while floating in space. Contributed photo

  • Chris Hadfield in the International Space Station’s Cupola. Contributed photo

  • Steve Robinson plays the guitar while floating above Earth.

  • Bandella was founded about 16 years ago in Star City, Russia. Contributed photo/Jann Tenenbaum

  • Bandella. Contributed photo/David Tenenbaum—

  • Bandella. Contributed photo/David Tenenbaum—

  • Bandella. From left to right, Cady Coleman, Steve Robinson, Chris Hadfield, Micki Pettit and Dave Webb. Contributed photo/Jann Tenenbaum

Staff Writer 
Published: 7/22/2019 8:49:10 AM

Some bands are described as “down to Earth.” Others are “out of this world.” It’s not often that a musical group is both at the same time. Bandella, the Band of Astronauts, has achieved this accomplishment both literally and metaphorically. 

The group is comprised in part of three astronauts: Former Canadian astronaut and New York Times bestselling author Chris Hadfield, the band’s frontman, plays rhythm guitar; Stephen Robinson, a former NASA astronaut, plays banjo, stand-up bass and guitar; and Catherine “Cady” Coleman of Shelburne Falls, a retired Air Force colonel who flew on two Space Shuttle missions, plays the flute. Micki Pettit, spouse of NASA Astronaut Donald Pettit, sings vocals and a long-time friend of the band, Dave Webb, sits in on the keyboard.

Musically, Bandella blends acoustic guitar, flute, stand-up bass and airy vocals for a folksy sound with hints of bluegrass and jazz.

Hailing from Houston, Texas — home of NASA’s center for human spaceflight, the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center — the band will make their Massachusetts debut next Saturday, July 27 at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. Appropriately, this Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. 

“By playing our music and standing up there,” said Coleman, 58, about the upcoming concert, “we’re making a statement to people both young and old that (anyone) can do great things.” 

It won’t be the first time Coleman commemorates an important terrestrial anniversary with music. On April 12, 2011, the 50th anniversary of human space flight, Coleman performed a flute duet with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson — from space. In order to play in-sync with Anderson, Coleman says she had to account for the delay between Earth and orbit. 

These days, Coleman mostly performs in various Pioneer Valley-based music groups in addition to Bandella. She says she’s looking forward to bringing the band’s interstellar talent to the region she calls home. 

Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center, in particular, is a special place, Coleman said. 

“They’ve given some thought to making it a place that works for Greenfield, bringing people together by having all different kinds of music and storytelling. Community and good music is what Bandella is all about. Hawks and Reed represents that,” Coleman said.

Pushing against boundaries

Over her two-decades-long career in NASA, Coleman spent six months living on the International Space Station in 2011 and at one point lived underwater for 11 days as part of a scientific mission experimenting with the physics of fluid.

From childhood, Coleman says she was destined for a life of exploration. 

“My dad worked on the first sea lab program … I thought it was normal to live somewhere unusual,” Coleman said. “I grew up thinking that exploration was something people did.”

As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, space travel came within reach.

“I never (imagined) being an astronaut until Dr. Sally Ride (former NASA astronaut and the first American woman in space) gave a lecture,” Coleman said. Before meeting Ride, she continued, “when I saw pictures of explorers in general, none of them looked like me.”

Coleman’s love of music was solidified while training to be an astronaut — the same place she met Hadfield.

“Hadfield and I have played together for 27 years,” said Coleman. “We even started at NASA on the same day, Aug. 3, 1992. If I knew Chris was going to be on a trip, I’d grab my flute knowing he always had his guitar.”

During space training, Coleman says they’d spend a third of each year in Russia for six weeks at a time. There, they lived in facilities with a gym on one side and a conference room on the other. On many nights after dinner, Coleman says the astronauts gathered in the conference room and played music together. 

“We just started to jam together and figured out how that kind of band relationship was going to work,” Coleman said. 

Building community

From its inception 16 years ago, Bandella was built around community.

According to Hadfield, the band was officially formed in a basement bar in Star City, Russia soon after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated while entering Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven of its crew members. In the following months, Hadfieldsaid that Bandella became a beacon for the astronaut community to rally around. No shuttles were flown for more than two years, allowing the band to practice and perform together often as a group. 

“There were a lot of reasons to try and cheer everybody up at the time.  We played a few times a month in our first few years,” said Hadfield, 59, who spent more than 20 years as a Canadian astronaut. 

Hadfield became famous in 2013 when he made a video covering David Bowie's “Space Oddity” while floating in the International Space Station. The video currently has more than 40 million views on YouTube. Later, he wrote a New York Times bestselling book titled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” Bandella’s third former NASA astronaut, University of California Davis Professor Steve Robinson, has also played his guitar while weightless, performing for crewmates onboard the space station.

Playing within Earth’s gravitational field is a little bit easier than playing while in orbit, Hadfield said. Not only is it difficult to hold a guitar in place, but space’s lack of gravity also affects singing. Without gravity, there is nothing draining the sinuses, which negatively affects vocal quality and resonance, Hadfield explained. There’s also no gravity to help push down the diaphragm. Breathing with the diaphragm while singing allows singers to completely fill their lungs with air.  Another challenge is adjusting to space’s unique physics. Without gravity, Hadfield says it took a while to adjust his muscle memory in order to stop his hands from overshooting notes on the fret-board of his guitar.

With the challenges, Hadfield said space is “good for the upper registers and that actually helped with ‘Space Oddity.’ ” While he was onboard the International Space Station, Hadfield said the guitar’s strings stayed well in-tune because of the space station’s controlled humidity, air and pressure.

These days, Bandella manages to perform together as a cohesive group a couple of times each year, according to Hadfield. Most recently, they performed a sold-out show in Winters, Calif.

For next weekend’s show, with feet planted solidly on Earth, Bandella will perform 30 of the band member’s favorite songs. Selected scenes from Robert Stone’s new film series, “Chasing The Moon” will be shown during the performance, along with images captured by the band’s astronauts. In-between songs, the astronauts will share personal stories and photographs of their travels through space.

In retirement from space travel, Hadfield says the musical mission of his astronaut-led band isn’t so different from that of space travelers. 

Through their music, “We’re (still) heavily involved with pushing at the edge of exploration,” he said. More than that, the musical endeavor is an artistic conduit for the band member’s outer space experiences, Hadfield said. Through lyrics, the astronauts are able to relate their technical understanding of space exploration and outer space experience in a way that’s easily understood.

“Imagine if you had orbited the world 2,600 times. What would you do with that experience? Do you keep it to yourself? How would you share it?” Hadfield said.

Zack DeLuca joined the Recorder in 2019. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com.

How to connect

Proceeds from Bandella’s July 27 show will benefit will benefit New England Public Media (WGBY public television and New England Public Radio). Doors open that night at 6:30 p.m. The show starts at 7. Admission to the show is $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Tickets can be purchased at bit.ly/2YZ5VbL. More information can be found at bit.ly/2xZZU2E.

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