Schenectady Symphony Orchestra audiences will have a chance to make an imaginary trip into space on Sunday with the world premiere of music director Glen Cortese’s new piece: “Voyager: A Journey to the Stars.” He’ll be assisted by real life astronaut Nicole Stott, who will provide the narration.
“I’ve always been fascinated by NASA’s Voyager mission,” Cortese said. “It was supposed to last only five years but it’s still sending back information to rewrite astronomy books and the world. . .these two little spacecrafts.”
Voyager I was a space probe that was launched September 5, 1977, barely a few weeks after Voyager 2 had launched August 20, 1977. They were built to study the outer planets and interstellar space beyond our solar system. But once they reached Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, they kept going and entered interstellar space in 2018. Over the years, some of the 11 scientific instruments the probes were equipped with have been shut down because the generators could not supply adequate electrical power. That number is currently at five. The probes are 14 billion miles from the sun and are expected to last until about 2025, which is more than 48 years after launch.
Each probe also carries a gold plated audio visual disc that includes, among other things, pictures of Earth, its life forms, scientific information, sounds of whales, and the music of Mozart, Chuck Berry and Glenn Gould playing one of Bach’s keyboard pieces.
All of this is fascinating for Stott.
“What I like about the Voyager program was the footsteps to get there,” she said. “The interstellar information is incredible. It shouldn’t be real but it is.”
Born in Albany into the Passonno Paint family, Stott became an aeronautical engineer who traveled to the International Space Station for two expeditions (2009 and 2011), space walked and directed two other space walks. In 2012 through 2014 she transitioned state-side to run teams of engineers in astronaut related concerns. She retired in 2015.
“I’m part of the ‘Star Trek’ generation,” Stott said laughing. “My dad built and flew small planes, so I was excited about flying and how it worked. It was only later after I’d become an engineer and was working at the Kennedy Space Center that I realized most of what the astronauts were doing was not about flying.”
In 2000, Stott became a member of the 18th class of NASA astronauts.
She remembers her first experiences.
“On launch, gravity has a real hold on you. You’re at three times the force of gravity, as if three of you are on top of you. You’re shaken a lot. It’s a lot of stress on the body.,” she said. “And all have expectations in seeing Earth from space. It’s overwhelmiing. Nothing prepares you. How crystal clear, how beautiful … that I live on a planet. The view out the window is so much more powerful than expected.”
And weightlessness came as a surprise.
“You can’t train for it. You’re floating. It’s awesome, so liberating, really cool. I was surprised how quickly my brain and body adapted to be so graceful. But the brain realizes you don’t need bones or muscles so we needed to exercise two hours a day and eat certain foods with nutrients to counteract accelerating osteoporosis.”
As beautiful as what she saw there was always a counter concern.
“We go around the Earth every 90 minutes so we had 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets,” Stott said. “One day I was floating by the window and I suddenly saw a light below me streak by. It was a shooting star. That was beautiful but then I thought it could have hit my spaceship.”
Cortese has tried to put many of these experiences into his music.
“There will be the intensity and violence and power of the rocket launch and when that’s over, the serene floating,” he said. “I wrote the narration about the mission and how it fits with the piece.”
He’s also used some audio recording of the chatter to give a feel and color of the event.
Now that Stott is retired from NASA, she’s moved on into painting — much of it space inspired, and writing a book: “Back to Earth: What Life in Space Taught Me About Our Home Planet — and Our Mission to Protect it.”
“I didn’t want to write a memoir but felt it important to share my experiences,” she said. “And I have an endless supply of pictures from space.”
The book is about middle school level, she said, and is part of her efforts through her foundation to unite kids through science and the arts “to live here on spaceship Earth.”
This is Stott’s first time narrating with an orchestra and she said she was “really excited.”
Stott will be signing copies from noon to 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Open Bookstore on Jay Street. Then proceed to Proctors’ Fenimore Gallery to present a short video and answer questions along with miSci astronomer Steven Spiewak. Kids will have a chance to make their own Pocket Solar System before the concert. Also on the program is pianist Ryan Reilly in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”
Schenectady Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 3
HOW MUCH: $15, free for 18 and under
MORE INFO: www.schenectadysymphony.com; 518 346-6204