Astronauts haven’t visited the moon in 50 years, but the United States is intent on taking them back. This week, hundreds of journalists from all over the globe travelled to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center to report on the launch of the first mission to . The ambitious endeavor is known as Artemis , Apollo’s sister according to Greek mythology. Yesterday’s launch was canceled after one of the main engines failed to cooperate. As journalists flitted around the press center just three miles from the launchpad, waiting for more details about what went wrong and when NASA would try again, I thought about what we had in common: not the assignment that had brought us there, but a certain tune that most of us probably know by heart.
If prompted–if someone started singing a few familiar notes–the press site could probably break into a rousing rendition of NASA’s hold music.
The music precedes every NASA telephone press conference, and it lives rent-free in our brains. And it’s not just reporters: astronomers, engineers, and personnel at NASA and commercial space companies alike have been subjected to the trademark music. At the beginning of an in-person briefing this weekend, Jackie McGuinness, the NASA press secretary, told the crowd, “We need some NASA hold music for this room.” Any hold music can become an earworm–there’s an entire internet-video genre of people vibing to the pleasant synth of Cisco’s customer-service music–but NASA’s has a certain air of gravitas, the kind that underpins the lofty endeavor of space exploration. It has been accompanying nearly all major NASA announcements to the media for years. It is used as an overture to announce that a rover will land on Mars and that a space telescope will be deployed or that a rocket for the moon is launched (or not). In a sense, it is the American space program’s soundtrack.
NASA has held more teleconferences than usual in the lead-up to the first Artemis mission. Waiting on hold before each of them, I realized that although I’ve covered NASA for more than five years, I knew nothing about what feels like the agency’s unofficial theme song. It was a sticky feeling in my bones that made me want to find out who composed the music. As NASA was preparing its lunar rocket for launch, I began to investigate.
I called in to an early teleconference held by NASA last week, to receive updates on the Space Launch System and the rocket engineers are currently working to repair. As usual, an operator answered and asked me for my name, ready to patch me into the call. She seemed confused, even a little suspicious, when I started asking about her instead. She told me that she works for Verizon, which provides NASA with conference-call services, including hold music. Verizon customers have the option to choose their custom music but NASA appears to prefer default. The operator said she and the other operators don’t have to listen to the melody themselves, but she feels bad for the poor souls who do. She said that “Nobody cares about it,” to be completely honest. Some callers have complained about it, she said, but no one has ever offered a compliment. (I’m not naming the operator because she told me she’s not authorized to speak for Verizon. )
The NASA hold music is quite divisive. Two different melodies are repeated in the loop. The first is country-inspired guitar music, but it’s very relaxed. The other is an upbeat, piano-forward romp that is–the space press corps would agree–much catchier. Some like jamming out to it; others absolutely loathe it. It takes just a second to let you know that the press conference will finally start. But then: plonk . The sound is so strongly associated with stress at work, that it makes my pulse jump like when you hear the alarm ringing in the middle-of-the-day.
legend says that when the nasa hold music loop reaches the end, the universe will disappear and be replaced by something even more strange
— Charles Bergquist (@cbquist) July 11, 2022
The Verizon operator didn’t know the provenance of the hold music, and emails to the phone company went unanswered. My partner and I phoned NASA once more, switched on the speaker on my phone, and held Shazam, the music-identification app on my smartphone. I received the IDs quickly. The twangy melody appeared to be “Windows Rolled Down,” by The 126ers. The peppier, more earworm-y jingle was “Soul Composing,” by Phat Mama Tee.
The songs were on YouTube, along with the artists’ other tracks, which were similarly instrumental–the type of chill stock music used in commercials. The identities of the artists were not revealed online. After some internet research, I discovered that Silent Partner was the creator of Soul Composing. However, the YouTube description also listed Trout Recording as their recording studio. I sent the company an email, the subject line a straightforward and desperate Do you know Phat Mama Tee? I received a reply a day later. The email replied enthusiastically, “I do!” “I am the composer.”
The composer is Bryce Goggin, a longtime musician and record producer who creates music for copyright-free audio libraries. There is, to his knowledge, no Phat Mama Tee–whoever uploaded the song to YouTube must have added that–and the track is actually called “Scrapbook.” Goggin told me that he and a group of his musician collaborators recorded it in 2014 during a jam session in which they probably churned out at least 10 tracks. He played the recording while trying to recall what day it was. (A muscle in my face twitched involuntarily.) He doesn’t remember if that’s him on the piano, but “we were just kind of sowing our indie-pop, ballad-rock oats that day,” he said.
Goggin didn’t know that his work has ended up as NASA’s hold music or that he has such a niche and passionate fan base. He said, “I am absolutely delighted that something I have worked on and made is affecting people. “It’s nice to know that [it] exists in the consciousness of other human beings.”
I never managed to find the artist or artists behind The 126ers, who may have produced the other half of NASA’s hold music. Perhaps some things are meant to remain as mysterious as the depths of the universe itself.
NASA is scheduled to hold another press conference tonight to discuss the canceled launch attempt and announce a new timeline for the mission, which would send an uncrewed astronaut capsule on a journey to the moon and back. Space agency sees future missions leading to sustained lunar presence. The soundscape for that future will include hold music and rumbling rockets. Every launch and milestone will offer another chance to listen in. Goggin’s inadvertent space-travel anthem might get even more famous. After I finished bombarding him for information, Goggin had a question for me: “What’s the number that I can call to hear that?”
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