Wherever they are, when Aggies hear the notes of “The Aggie War Hymn” or “The Spirit of Aggieland,” they are immediately connected to the spirit that unites every student who sets foot on the Texas A&M University campus.
Nearly 38 years ago, on June 19, 1983, this spirit traveled to space when “The Aggie War Hymn” was played as part of the first wake-up call of NASA’s STS-7 space shuttle mission. The tradition of playing songs to wake astronauts began in the 1960s and has included numerous types of music, usually selected by NASA flight controllers or crewmembers’ friends and family, followed by a call from mission control.
The STS-7 flight was the first of three space shuttle missions in which the songs of Aggieland have echoed to the stars to rouse astronauts with the universal Texas A&M spirit.
A Flight of Firsts
For the STS-7 crew’s first morning in space, Gerald “Gerry” Griffin ’56, the director of Houston’s Johnson Space Center, selected “The Aggie War Hymn” to share his maroon and white pride with the five astronauts on the Challenger shuttle before playing The University of Texas’ fight song for Mission Commander and UT alumnus Bob Crippen. During the six-day mission, Griffin played the war hymn for the crew every morning followed by an additional song, including music from each astronaut’s alma mater.
The war hymn wake-up is only one example of Griffin’s displays of Aggie pride during his 26-year career at NASA. As a member of mission control during the Apollo program and lead flight director for several missions, Griffin previously played the war hymn for the Apollo 17 lunar landing crew when they were on the moon in 1972. His Aggie ring also traveled to the moon during the Apollo 12 mission.
A distinguished alumnus of Texas A&M, Griffin said the university made his career possible. “Texas A&M prepared me for it,” he explained in a 2018 video from the Department of Aerospace Engineering. “I was ready, and when the bell rang, I was able to answer it.”
Besides signifying the first time “The Aggie War Hymn” was played on a space shuttle, the STS-7 mission made history in other ways as well. Not only did it have the largest crew to fly on a single spacecraft at the time, but it also included Sally Ride as a mission specialist, marking the first time an American woman traveled to space.
The most complex shuttle program of its time, STS-7 was a satellite deployment and retrieval mission. The crew launched two communication satellites and deployed a third to photograph Challenger in flight before retrieving it two days later with the shuttle’s robotic arm. The mission also furthered numerous experiments, including an in-flight study of space motion sickness.
“The Aggie War Hymn” was again heard on a space shuttle on July 14, 2006, as the 11th day’s wake-up call for the crew of the STS-121 mission. The song was played in honor of mission specialist Col. Michael Fossum ’80, the second Aggie to travel to space and the current chief operating officer of Texas A&M University at Galveston.
“Whoop! Gig ’em Aggies!” Fossum responded to Dr. Steven Swanson ’98, who greeted the crew from Mission Control following the song and explained that Fossum’s wife, Melanie ’80, had selected that morning’s Aggie music.
“There are quite a few Aggies right here in Mission Control and all throughout Texas who have been watching what you have been doing intently throughout this mission,” Swanson told Fossum. “You could even say, ‘The eyes of Texas are upon you.’”
The STS-121 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery was Fossum’s first time in space and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “The first spaceflight was incredible,” Fossum recalled in a 2008 interview with NASA. “Words don’t do it justice.”
During the 13-day mission, the Discovery crew performed maintenance on the International Space Station (ISS), delivered supplies and a new crew member to the station, and tested new equipment and procedures to increase space shuttle safety. Fossum performed three spacewalks with mission specialist Piers Sellers to perform maintenance on the ISS and to inspect the shuttle’s heat shield.
Coming to a Close
The final historic flight to feature an Aggie song was STS-124 when “The Spirit of Aggieland” woke Fossum and the rest of the Discovery crew on June 9, 2008.
After the song, Fossum expressed his pride in Texas A&M. “Whoop! ‘There’s a spirit can ne’er be told. That’s the Spirit of Aggieland,’” he radioed to Mission Control. “Texas A&M is indeed a very special place. Thanks to my Aggie wife this morning for that wake-up music, to all my Aggie buds, and to the hundreds of thousands of Aggies on campus and around the world. It’s going to be a great day.”
The 123rd space shuttle flight and the 26th shuttle mission to the ISS, STS-124 delivered and installed the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module, a major component of the Japanese portion of the station. As the lead spacewalker of the crew, Fossum participated in three spacewalks, totaling 20 hours and 32 minutes, to help prepare and install the Kibo lab.
The success of this mission brought Fossum one step closer to realizing a dream that began in 1993 when he served as a member of the space station redesign team. “The completion of STS-124 with the delivery of the Japanese laboratory brings us very close to what we have dreamed about for the space station all along,” Fossum explained in his 2008 NASA interview. “This is hugely gratifying to be on one of these flights toward the end where you see everything coming together.”
With the completion of the ISS bringing an end to the space shuttle program in 2011, the tradition of wake-up calls is not currently practiced, but through Texas A&M’s status as a space-grant university, the Aggie spirit continues to echo to the stars.