Guitars in Orbit
--from Babylon Babies by Maurice G. Dantec, transl. from the French by Noura Wedell (Semiotext(e), 2005), p. 112
Van Halen belt When astronauts began to spend long periods in orbit on space stations, music was a key factor in staving off boredom. The advent of the eight-track tape, with its relatively lightweight player, offered the opportunity for space travelers to carry a relatively large amount of music in their personal weight allowance. Once the tapes were in space, they tended to stay there, left for the astronauts' successors in the station. The Soviets' Salyut 6 station, which was in orbit from 1977 to 1982, amassed a considerable tape library, what with the comings and goings of the many Soyuz and Progress missions. Many of the Soviet cosmonauts were fans of hard rock and metal, and many were the orbits that hard-rockin' guitars could be heard within the cramped confines of the bulkheads of Salyut 6. (In space, no one can hear you rock.)
The final manned mission on Salyut 6 was in 1981. By this time, it was known that the station was going to be deorbited. Interviewed years later, Soviet cosmonaut Leonid Popov recalled, "One day it hit me that our magnificent tape library was going to become a charred, melted lump of plastic. Maybe it's silly, but I just couldn't stand the idea of it all being destroyed. We had so much great music--Jethro Tull, Zeppelin, Bad Company, Foghat, you name it. So, I made the decision that I was going to jettison the tapes into outer space. Maybe some alien would find them centuries later. There must have been hundreds of them by then. It was a really magnificent sight, watching them trail away as I propelled them out the airlock."
One day late in 2001, astronaut Carl Walz, on Expedition 4 to the International Space station, spotted a curious object floating near the station. When he examined it through a small telescope, it proved to be a curious bit of space junk. Though much battered by micrometeorites, the label on the eight-track was clearly discernible: It was Van Halen's 1978 self-titled debut album. It didn't take long for one wag to dub the station's orbit "the Van Halen belt," and the name has come to be used for any area of low earth orbit where space junk tends to collect.