Third Man Records has officially made history in celebration of their 7th Anniversary by launching the first record played in space. The launch of the ICARUS CRAFT, a custom “space-proof” turntable attached to a high-altitude balloon, occurred on July 2 just outside of Marsing, Idaho, spinning Third Man’s THREE MILLIONTH record pressed. The ICARUS CRAFT was designed and engineered by Kevin Carrico, longtime friend and electronics consultant for Third Man Records, and launched with the invaluable assistance of SATINS (Students and Teachers in Near Space).
The goal of our mission was to send a vinyl record up as high as possible and document it being played there. Near space (our ultimate destination) is regularly visited for NASA (it closely mimics the atmosphere of Mars, so it is traveled to often for tests), but our mission was made complex by the fact that we weren’t simply flying a stationary object, but a turntable that we wanted to work – and work well! – so the endeavor became more of a professional high altitude flight than one might expect. Because of this, we had several, oft-changing government standards to meet while refining our design, selecting camera angles, and weatherproofing our craft in case of inclement weather – all while keeping the weight down and maintaining enough battery capacity to keep the record spinning in the cold air of Earth’s atmosphere. We needed low winds, a clear sky, and approval from the FAA and the FCC, all which coincided perfectly on July 2, 2016.
The craft reached a peak altitude of 94,413 feet at 1:21:20 flight time (roughly 1000/feet/minute) when the balloon burst (a truly beautiful sight) and the descent began. For the entire hour and twenty minutes of ascension, the Icarus turntable faithfully played Carl Sagan’s “A Glorious Dawn” (from “Cosmos” by Symphony of Science composer John Boswell) on repeat, using an impressively sturdy phono cartridge and stylus as well as an onboard flight computer programmed with a few different actions to keep the record playing while it was safe to do so. Once the return to Earth began (with the craft attached to a parachute and falling about 4x faster than it rose), the turntable automatically went into “turbulence mode,” where the record continued to spin, but the tone arm was triggered to lift from the record surface and stay in its locked position, to protect both the needle and the record itself. When Icarus reached the ground – in a vineyard, to be exact – the record still spun, unfazed by its incredible journey.
Beyond the potentially bumpy ride, Carrico’s other hurdles to jump in making this project a success had to do with just how incompatible space & vinyl records actually are! According to Carrico, “As you rise higher and higher into the thinning atmosphere, temperature and increasing vacuum (lack of air) can cause issues. Vinyl has a rather low melting point (160°F), and without air to keep things cool, you could wind-up with a lump of melted plastic on your hands if a record is exposed to the sun for too long. Without air, things in direct sunlight can get very hot while things in shade can get very cold. This constant expansion and contraction can physically distort a vinyl record rendering it unplayable. So our turntable platter also served as a heat-sink in order to keep the vinyl cool in direct sunlight.” The gold plating on the record was another measure to keep the grooves from losing their shape.
From its conception to flight, this endeavor took over three years, with much of that time spent in research and development, as Carrico tested each component of the craft separately and in combination with others. Of course, Carrico was often pulled away to tend to other Third Man Records projects including rehabilitating the Recording Booth and Wax-O-Matic that reside at its Cass Corridor location. The discoveries made while working on vintage machines like these actually proved helpful in solving issues with Icarus, and vice versa, many solutions developed for Icarus were implemented in Third Man’s machines, full circle.
Carrico’s #1 resource in the success of this project was his father, Dr. John P. Carrico, PhD, a physicist that worked on the Mars-Viking missions and provided endless enthusiasm for his children’s endeavors, large and small. Carrico’s brothers John, himself an astrophysicist, and Tim, who works in the aerospace analytics industry, also provided a wealth of information in making this launch a success. Third Man Records would like to offer its most sincere appreciate to the entire Carrico family.
Gary Lantz of MFK Interests was another member of the team of supreme importance, acting as our thermodynamics engineer and performing many tests that made the launch go as smoothly as possible. David Jankowski of SATINS provided endless flight-support coordination, and all the members of his incredible team (including Paul Verhage, flight engineer, Rachel Verhage, tracking coordinator, and John Kernkamp, senior lab technician) were invaluable. Third Man Records would like to thank MFK Interests and SATINS, for loaning yours truly worthy personnel to this mission.
About the ICARUS CRAFT launch, Third Man Records owner Jack White said, “Our main goal from inception to completion of this project was to inject imagination and inspiration into the daily discourse of music and vinyl lovers. Combining our creative impulses with those of discovery and science is our passion, and even on the scale that we are working with here, it was exhilarating to decide to do something that hasn’t been done before and to work towards its completion. And, it brings us great fulfillment to pay tribute to the incredible scientist and dreamer that Carl Sagan was. We hope that in meeting our goal we inspire others to dream big and start their own missions, whatever they may be.”
Watch the launch in its entirety, archived HERE, or settle for our shorter recap video HERE, and enjoy the fruits of Third Man Records, Kevin Carrico, and the entire team’s labor. Third Man Records could not be happier to check this longtime goal off its bucket list.