Forty years ago, in 1972, Elton John's single "Rocket Man" was released around the world. In April, 2012, Elton was told that European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut André Kuipers had made a special point of playing "Rocket Man" over the airwaves of the International Space Station (ISS) on the song's fortieth anniversary. André said, "This song has been an inspiration to many people who are interested in space, and especially those who wanted to become astronauts, including myself. It is certainly one of the most played songs here on the ISS, and we know it will accompany more astronauts into space in the future."
So on April 17, the exact anniversary of its release around the world, Elton played the song during his Million Dollar Piano Show in Las Vegas, and Yamaha Entertainment Group was there to capture the moment on film so it could be sent to the astronauts at the European Space Agency.
The ESA has since created a video combining images from the space station with Elton's live version of "Rocket Man," and it can be viewed here:
Hearing about "Rocket Man" being played in space, Elton sent the following special message to ESA, André and the crew of the ISS:
"When I was a boy Dan Dare was a comic book hero, and space travel just a romantic idea, not a reality. I was 14 years old when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; my songwriting partner Bernie Taupin was just 11. Bernie and I did not meet until 1967, and two years after we met, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on to the moon."
"Our generation was smitten with the glory and excitement of space travel. 'Rocket Man' - and indeed 'Dan Dare' on the Rock of the Westies album - came from those boyhood dreams of travelling beyond the stars and looking back on Earth."
"Not long after the Rocket Man single was released, my band and I were invited to the NASA headquarters in Texas and shown around by Al Worden, Apollo 15 command module pilot. It was thrilling to find that real astronauts liked our song, Rocket Man, which was about an imaginary astronaut."
"Now, 40 years later, it's amazing to hear from the astronauts at the European Space Agency that they like the song and that it has been on the playlist on the International Space Station. I send my best wishes to ESA and all the crew, and my thanks for keeping those boyhood dreams alive."
Since Elton got in touch, several of the ESA astronauts have written down their thoughts about the song.
Jean-Francois Clervoy, who flew three times in space on the Space Shuttle (STS-66, STS-84, STS-103) describes life as a real-life Rocket Man: "I took CDs of Elton John, one of my favourite artists, three times into space (there were no MP3s at the time of my missions) and for sure "Rocket Man" was one of the songs I've listened to each time with great feeling."
"Space adventure is a paradoxical mix of loneliness and of globalness. The blackness of the sky (when eyes are not adjusted to darkness in the cockpit and you can't see any stars) contrasts with the joyful colours of Earth, which you can't stop to admire and feel part of. But if you shut off all lights in the cockpit, then the sky becomes bright with stars (not twinkling) and you feel part of the whole Universe. Yes, a trip to Mars would feel long if you just think of the things to do each day. But if you think of your role as a pioneer, as an explorer 'going boldly where no one has gone before' for the benefit of humankind, then time doesn't count. Only the hope for a better world counts, resulting from increased knowledge from your contribution to science."
"In May this year, I'll be listening to "Rocket Man" together with Charlie Duke (who flew Apollo 16 in 1972 when "Rocket Man" was released) and we'll give a joint conference in the middle of the Pacific!"
Frank De Winne is a Belgian ESA astronaut who flew twice in space, on Soyuz TMA-1 in 2002 and Soyuz TMA-15 in 2009. He was the first European astronaut to command an International Space Station Expedition. Frank says: "I'm a rocket man! Since the first lift-off of the Space Shuttle Columbia, I wanted to fly rockets. I have been one of the very fortunate who had the chance to actually do so twice... but even now being 30 years older than when I first dreamt about it, I still remain a Rocket Man and I still want to fly. There is nothing more beautiful than to explore our planet from space. There are no boundaries when you see Earth from space, no skin colours, no political sides, just one planet with only one common future. As rocket men and women it is our duty to testify about it and to strive for a better world for all. I AM a rocket man! Thank you, Elton John, for your great music."
ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano will be travelling to the International Space Station in 2013 as a flight engineer on the Expedition 36 long-duration mission. He was selected in 2009, and this will be his first spaceflight. Luca said, "Like all true works of art, this song speaks at a universal level, and it's not necessary to be an astronaut to understand its message. I haven't been to space yet, but I have been a 'rocket man' several times, as I think we all must have: Sir Elton John simply put words to a feeling that we've all experienced, and created a masterpiece for all of us to enjoy and revel in."
History of Elton John's Rocket Man
"Rocket Man" was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and released in April 1972.
In Britain the single was released as a 'maxi-disc,' an innovative format comprising three tracks - "Rocket Man" (from Honky Chateau, Elton's forthcoming album), "Holiday Inn" and "Goodbye" from Elton's then current album, Madman Across The Water - in a full-colour picture sleeve. Announcing the release, DJM Records said that 'the first 50,000 copies incorporate a mini-LP sleeve with the lyrics of the songs, plus photos of Elton and colleague Bernie Taupin.'
Elton's American record company connected the release of "Rocket Man" to the launch of Apollo 16, and took out press advertisements saying 'On the morning of April 16, 1972, Apollo 16 was launched into orbit on a journey to the moon. A few mornings earlier Uni Records launched a new Elton John single into a world-wide orbit. WHAT A TRIP! Both launchings bound to set new records.'
On April 28, 1972, Elton and the band played a concert at Hofheinz Pavilion, University of Houston, Texas, the second date of their 1972 American tour. Ahead of the show, the Rocket Man met the 'Rocket men' at the Manned Space Centre in Houston, Texas, where Al Worden, Apollo 15 command module pilot, took Elton, Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone on a conducted tour of the NASA headquarters.
Back in April 1972, "Rocket Man" received excellent reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. In the USA Record World wrote 'while the astronauts are on the moon, Elton John explores the outer limits of the possibilities of pop music. This should be a huge hit; it's one of his best.' The British music paper Melody Maker said 'Elton returns with a fine new composition, packaged on useful maxi-single, taken from his forthcoming album Honky Chateau.'
Meanwhile the journalist from Disc completely lost his cool and exclaimed 'this is by far the best thing Elton John has ever done - it's quite superb...this band is great, the song is great, Bernie Taupin's lyrics are great and if the Honky Chateau LP is going to be like this you're going to have to listen to it in little doses or you'll go mad. After two hearings I was so busy singing along that I couldn't get myself organised into taking notes about the structure of the record. Consumer, not critic, that's me, and I can consume music like this for evermore.'
The single entered the UK charts on April 22, reaching the number 2 position and staying on the chart for 13 weeks. In the USA the single entered the Billboard chart on May 6 and reached the number 6 position, staying in the US chart for 15 weeks. These were the highest positions achieved so far by an Elton John single in the UK and the USA.
Elton still plays "Rocket Man" at all of his concerts.