BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
OK, it’s not exactly one of the great achievements of Western civilization, but it’s still pretty cool. On September 16, 2021, when Elon Musk’s ambitious space exploration company, SpaceX, launched its Falcon 9 rocket into orbit with a crew of just four intrepid private citizens (a first in aerospace history), the capsule that sat atop the Crew Dragon spacecraft was carrying what some might consider an unusual piece of cargo: a Martin soprano ukulele. It was brought onboard for the Inspiration4 mission (as it was dubbed) by crew member Christopher Sembroski—an Air Force veteran and current data analyst for Lockheed Martin—and toward the end of the nearly three-day journey, he gave the instrument a brief workout more 350 miles above the Earth, serenading his crew mates with a version of the psychedelic soul band Black Pumas’ uplifting 2019 hit song “Colors.”
As some of you longtime Ukulele magazine readers might know, this was not the first time a Martin uke has tagged along on an historic expedition. Way back in 1926, a Martin Style 1K was sneaked onto the plane that Admiral Richard Byrd and his pilot Floyd Bennett flew over the North Pole for the first time. Later nicknamed the “Konter ukulele,” after the instrument’s owner—Byrd’s uke-playing recreation director, Richard Konter—it was subsequently signed by nearly everyone involved in the polar expedition (which also included treacherous sea voyages), plus celebrities of the era such as U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. (A photo of Konter and his uke graced the cover of the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele.) These days, the Konter uke resides at the Martin Guitar Museum and Visitor Center in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
The uke that was part of the 2021 Inspiration4 space flight served a higher purpose than its illustrious forerunner. Indeed, the main reason Sembroski brought and played the Martin was so it could be auctioned off to raise money for Memphis’ St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which has been looking for cures for childhood cancer (and other pediatric diseases) for more than 60 years. In fact, the primary “goal” of the mission was to raise 200 million dollars for St. Jude—which they did, in part through a high-ticket raffle for one of the seats on the flight! An anonymous pal of Sembroski’s actually won the raffle, but elected not to go, transferring his slot to his friend. The other crew members were mission commander Jared Isaacman (an experienced pilot; currently the CEO of Shift4Payments), Hayley Arceneaux (a physician’s assistant at St. Jude and a bone cancer survivor), and Dr. Sian Proctor (a geology professor, “science communicator,” and 2009 finalist for NASA’s Astronaut Selection Process).
Almost a month to the day after the successful conclusion of the Inspiration4’s mission, I spoke to Chris Sembroski by phone from Everett, Washington, to find out more about his and the ukulele’s role in this remarkable adventure.
I presume you’re a musician. How did the idea of bringing a uke on your space flight come up?
Everyone in my family is a musician. My entire upbringing was in the [Southern Baptist] church and my parents were heavily involved in music programs. Even when we moved around a bit, they always found ways to get back into the music program, whether it was in the orchestra or playing accompaniments for the choir; all sorts of different things. My dad went to Carnegie Mellon as a performance major. He could play piano by ear, and my mom could play pretty much anything on a sheet of music on the piano. I started on the clarinet in middle school. My roommate in high school taught me some chords on his guitar so I picked that up there. Then I moved from clarinet to oboe, and I played that when I was a member of the Great Falls Symphony Orchestra in Montana when I was stationed there with the Air Force. But guitar was always a quick instrument for me to pick up and strum, sing along with, and let loose for a while.
So, in talking to my parents, I wondered, “what do I want to take to space?” Music was something that felt very important to me. And to family. My brother played French horn in the United States Marines Band. All my aunts and uncles play something—and they do it well. So there was some pressure to pick something that I could try to do well. But a guitar is too big for the Dragon spacecraft. So we talked about a folding guitar, and that led me down the path of getting connected with Martin Guitar through Inspiration4, and they were very supportive and onboard. We got the dimensions from SpaceX of what they could handle, and [Martin] sent over a tenor ukulele. “All right, cool. It’s small, but it’s got a nice big sound to it; we’ll give it a shot.” And it was two inches too long. So about a week later they sent me a soprano with a beautiful “Inspiration4” inlay on the fretboard, and that fit the container just fine. However, my fingers had to get used to pretending they were skinny.
Had you played uke before?
A little; not a whole lot. A while back I was trying to convince my older daughter to play guitar, and at her age back then it hurt her fingers to press the strings initially, so I said, “OK, let’s start with the ukulele. It’s easier to press, it doesn’t hurt as much; we’ll learn together.” I picked it up pretty quickly: “Here are some basic chords—here’s a C chord, here’s a G chord, here’s an F.” I was learning the fingerings along with her.
I had a song in mind to play in space, so Martin helped me again and set me up with a tutor, A.J. Smith [NY-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist], over the last month or two before the flight.
What did that tutoring entail?
A lot of positive encouragement from A.J.!
“You can do this, Chris!”
[Laughs] That’s exactly right! I have high expectations for myself. I think the scariest part about the entire space mission was that I had dedicated myself to playing and singing a song in space and my fingers were learning to fit on the soprano ukulele. I was determined to make them fit, so we had three or four lessons and I got better each time. I probably should have picked a song that had a slightly lower range for my voice. But he and I got together, and he showed me how I should play it, versus how I was trying to do it, which was just picking up the chords. It was a lot of fun. I can’t say I performed it especially well. But I got to do it and that’s what mattered.
The song you chose, “Colors,” by Black Pumas, is great. It’s got really cool lyrics and an inclusive vibe—a nice message.
I first heard that performed during Joe Biden’s inauguration celebration that was televised, and my wife and I were impressed by it so much that we’ve now got it on vinyl here at the house. You hit on the exact reason we chose it—it’s got a great vibe, it’s inclusive. And it turned out to be a song the entire crew loved. Hayley [Arceneaux] kept saying it was our theme song in space. We were all looking out the window of the cupola [the domed tip of the capsule] and seeing all the colors back on earth—it fit perfectly.
How would somebody have seen or heard this? Was there some 24-hour video feed?
Well, you first got to hear me play the ukulele at the show-and-tell that was televised by SpaceX, and that was just a little improvisation of me just playing some chords together and making it sound like it’s a cool song. It came off great considering it was being transmitted from the space down on the ground across to the cabin mic, which was the only audio equipment we had on board to broadcast. So that was just 30 seconds or so of me jamming on the ukulele a little bit.
Playing “Colors” in space was the most terrifying part of the mission! But on the last day in space, I thought, “I’ve got to do this.” I had put everyone through the struggle of trying to make this thing work, and the poor cargo specialist had to figure out a way to make the ukulele fit in the bag on a diagonal and evaluate it in case something broke—would there be any potential splintering that could cause damage to the spacecraft and the crew?
They had to do crazy engineering on it. So, on that last day, I floated up to the window, grabbed the ukulele, and Jared [Isaacman] recorded me at least through a verse and a chorus of the song and… Well, it felt good to do it, but I can’t say I would be proud to have anyone watch it on YouTube. [Laughs] I’ll have to practice it a little more here on the ground and work up an earthbound performance of it. That was just the practice session up there! I still owe my wife a performance. She never got let into the room during my practice sessions.
What was the sound like in the Dragon, acoustically?
I loved it! The acoustics were good. Granted, you have the noise of the cabin fan providing some background white noise, but the ukulele had a good resonance to it and it could project when you hit it just right. You don’t get the echo you would get in a shower, but you get the sound bouncing off the hard interior walls. They don’t directly bounce back the sound off of each other, so you don’t get awful reverb; you get a great, full sound that makes you feel like the music is in and around you. If you like singing in the shower, you’d love playing in the Dragon.
And of course, the cherry on top of this is that it was all for a good cause—to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Right. Doing something fantastic in space meant we had to earn our way up there and do something that would be equally fantastic on the ground. Jared set this huge fundraising goal of hitting a $200 million target, and the ukulele is part of that. Martin customized this ukulele for us and had me sign it when we got back here on earth, and it’s being auctioned off with all the proceeds going to St. Jude’s life-saving mission of supporting kids with childhood cancers and other diseases and hopefully eliminate them. [The space uke fetched an impressive $15,000 at auction.—BJ] When we came back in splashdown, we learned we had not only met our goal, but exceeded it. It’s at about a quarter-billion so far, so we’re absolutely stoked, and there was not a dry eye around the table after we got off the helicopter and found out we’d met our goal.