Being the "space nerd" that I am, when I 1st heard the song "Contact" on the latest Daft Punk album Random Access Memories I just had to know more about the opening NASA transmission audio. What NASA mission was the mission audio taken from and why? Here is what I found out...
Apollo 17 Audio
The mission audio was from Apollo 17, the last NASA manned mission to the moon. Apollo 17 launched on December 7 1972. It was a 3-man crew with Eugene "Gene" Cernan as the Commander, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmidt. The "incident" audio that was used at the front of the Daft Punk song occured on their way to the Moon after the crew had left the immediate vicinity of Earth. The full mission transcripts are available in PDF format from a NASA JSC website if you want to read the entire transcript. However, an article by Space Answers provides us with the section of the NASA transcripts used in the opening of the song:
Cernan: “Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about and it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby. It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion because the flashes come around almost on time. As we look back at the earth it’s up at about 11 o’clock, about maybe ten or twelve diame…Earth diameters. I don’t know whether that does you any good, but there’s something out there.”
As well as a portion of the transcript that immediately follows the audio that was used by Daft Punk:
Cernan: “One unique thing about it, Bob, is that it’s got two flashes. As it comes around in rhythmic fashion, you get a very bright flash, and then you get a dull flash. And then it’ll come around with a bright flash, and then a dull flash.”
Schmitt: “That’s the side of the S-IVB and then the engine bell, Gene.”
“Hey, Bob, we got two of those flashers out there. They could be SLA [Spacecraft Lunar Module Adapter] panels. I don’t know. They’re alike in intensity and pretty regular in the bright and dim flashes they come out with, and they’re widely separated.”
What did they see and why choose this audio?
Gene Cernan is the person speaking in the audio and he is describing an object that he sees looking outside the Command Module window. The object he sees is flashing and appears to be rotating and is following a nearly parallel path to that of the Apollo 17 spacecraft. What Gene Cernan most likely saw was the upper-most stage (Saturn S-IVB) of the Saturn V rocket that propelled them into orbit and performed the trans-lunar injection (TLI) maneuver that put them on a course to the Moon. Since both the rocket stage that put them on their path to the moon and the Apollo spacecraft are both the same object until they separate from each other (and this doesn't occur until after the TLI maneuver), both the Saturn S-IVB and the Apollo 17 spacecraft are on nearly identical trajectories (I say nearly because the separation event imparts some small velocity to each of the objects). So as cool as the idea is that the Apollo 17 astronauts made "contact" with an alien race, it appears they simply saw their rotating launch vehicle uper stage that followed them to the Moon.
As for why Daft Punk chose this NASA audio...the obvious reason was because of the mysterious nature of the object they were seeing out the window. It really did sound like Gene was seeing an alien spacecraft. But there is another reason this audio was chosen. According to an article from openminds.tv, during an interview with DJ Falcon (who collaborated on Random Access Memories), Daft Punk approached NASA because they needed "cool space sounds" for their upcoming album. So they called up NASA and NASA gave them access to all the audio recordings from the Apollo missions. But why this exact piece of audio? Quoting directly from the openminds.tv article:
Falcon says he is a childhood friend of Thomas and Guy-Manuel, the duo that make up the French techno band Daft punk, and for reasons he can’t remember they called him Bob. So when Thomas heard the Cernan transmission, which started “Hey Bob,” it caught his attention. The rest is Rock and Roll history.
Another interesting note about the Apollo 17 mission was that Gene Cernan left his Hasselblad camera on the lunar surface with the lens pointing into space. An article by the Daily Mail explains that Gene left the camera hoping that the next astronaut to visit the site would be able to use the camera and measure the amount of radiation collected on the lens. What Gene didn't know at the time was that he was to be the last human to set foot on the moon for the foreseeable future. NASA had originally planned for more Apollo missions after Apollo 17, but after the Apollo 17 mission flew all future Apollo flights were cancelled due to budget cuts. So who knows what Gene's camera lens has seen since. It may be that Gene's camera has since witnessed a real "first contact", except nobody is there to witness or record it.