Monday 21 October 2019

The astronaut who faced her biggest fear: playing live with the Chieftains

Tom Prendeville

Irish-American Cady Coleman is the first person to record music in space, writes Tom Prendeville

Irish-American musician Cady Coleman has risked her life as a NASA astronaut and seriously endangered her health for the sake of science.

Yet she confesses, the most terrifying thing she has ever done in her life was perform live on stage with The Chieftains in front of thousands of fans in Belfast and Dublin two weeks ago. Recalling her recent holiday, she says: "It was the most terrifying vocation for me -- it really was."

Cady is a traditional Irish flute player and scientist and during her NASA career has been around the world over 3,000 times, clocking up an astonishing 93 million miles.

On her last interstellar mission on board the International Space Station, Coleman recorded three songs for The Chieftains' 50th anniversary album -- the first time anyone has ever recorded an album in space.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1960, Coleman went on to join the US Air Force as a second lieutenant. A gifted academic, she also qualified as a chemist before joining NASA as an astronaut and research scientist.

Deeply proud of her Irish heritage, she and three other NASA astronauts, and an astronaut's wife, formed a traditional Irish band called Banelot.

"I am one-quarter Irish on either side and my brother is married to an Irish woman and their kids are champion Irish dancers.

"I play the flute, and more recently the Irish flute, and our band plays in the Celtic music festivals. Being astronauts, it is hard for the band to play together because a lot of the time half the musicians are in space," explains Cady.

As luck would have it, in 1998 she met the son of Paddy Moloney from The Chieftains, Padraig, who is a nanotechnology scientist.

"Padraig came to work for NASA and he used to live with friends of mine and that is how we met."

Through Padraig, Cady got to know his father Paddy and bandmate Matt Molloy when they visited the NASA facilities in Florida. And out of the visit was born the idea of recording some tracks in space.

In December 2010, she embarked upon a six-month mission on board the International Space Station. Each astronaut is allowed to bring along a couple of small personal keepsakes Coleman choose musical instruments.

"I got Paddy's whistle and Matt Molloy's antique flute, which was made in the early 1800s.

"It was marvellous late at night floating around space; by playing music I kind of made space into my neighbourhood."

With NASA's blessing, Cady was able to relay the finished music back to earth via the onboard satellite phone. Appropriately enough, one of the tunes was called 'The Chieftains in Orbit'.

"I also recorded two traditional songs, 'Fanny Power' and 'The Butterfly' for The Chieftains' 50th anniversary album. It was a great honour."

On board the Space Station, the six crew members work a nine-to-five day doing experiments, and relaxing in their spare time watching TV or listening to music.

However, that is where normality ends; spinning around the earth every 90 minutes, the crew members experienced endless sunsets and dawns.

Currently, Cady lives in western Massachusetts with her husband Josh Simpson, who is a glass artist.

She has an 11-year-old son and a 28-year-old stepson.

Although very happy with life on earth, she confesses that she has itchy feet and would like to travel to space again.

"I'm in line to go back to space. I would love to do it again. You are travelling around the earth 16 times a day and the view is quite profound -- you feel like a citizen of the earth."

Irish Independent

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