How a sax solo became a heart-wrenching tribute to the Challenger crew
Ronald McNair was an accomplished guy. NASA's second-ever African-American astronaut was a physicist, a world-renowned expert in lasers, 5th-degree black belt in Karate, and jazz saxophonist. Amazingly, he was also dedicated to making sure most of those accomplishments lined up — in space.
The multi-talented astronaut was then working with French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, whose work in the electronic music and synthpop was unparalleled. The two were collaborating on a piece for one of the composer's upcoming albums that would include a saxophone solo recorded in orbit above the Earth.
McNair was also set to perform a live concert with Jarre's band — a specially-written solo just for him — during one of their performances through a live feed from his second mission aboard the Challenger space shuttle. Of course, none of this happened. On this mission, Challenger never made it to orbit, disintegrating 73 seconds into its launch from Cape Canaveral on January 28, 1986.
The accomplished astronaut's musical solo would have been the first piece of live music ever recorded in space.
When Jarre's album, called Rendez-Vous, was released, it included a track called "Ron's Piece," using McNair's actual heartbeat as the beat of the piece.
The concert also went on as scheduled. Jarre took to the stage in Houston on Apr. 5 of that same year to a cacaphony of synth sounds, lasers, and fireworks. Though McNair wasn't giving his solo from space, 1.3 million people still checked in to see the concert in McNair's honor.
The Houston, Texas skyline lights up for Jarre's tribute to McNair.
At the request of McNair's wife, Grammy-winning jazz musician Kirk Whalum performed McNair's saxophone solo.
"Going on stage took on a new meaning that day," he told CNN. "Because not to mention this horde, this mass of humanity, and all the security just to get to this spot, but then they had to hoist my instrument up, and then I was climbing up this crazy ladder to get to the top of this scaffold."
It was the largest-ever public performance of its kind up to that point.