PBS manages to capture that moment with The Race for Space — eleven year old me, watching wide-eyed as I realise just how vast the universe is, just how much we don't know, just how amazing it really is that humanity got to space and stood on the actual moon in the actual sky.
I'm a sucker for history and a sucker for conceptual albums, and a double sucker for historical concept albums. TRFS takes you through the entirety of, well, the race for space starting with the eponymous track. A rousing speech by JFK backed by an angelic chorus —something that feels, to me, a little tongue in cheek especially since PBS is a British band — kickstarts the album, and kickstarts it strong. We know why we're here, we know what we're getting. We're getting JFK! We're getting American exceptionalism! We're getting... well.
The next song is Sputnik, and it fills us in on the situation with a news broadcast. The newscaster tells us that all men of all nations recognise this grand achievement. Sputnik's bleep-bleep-bleep as it records temperature and pressure serve as the beat, and we're left to ponder the question raised: will Sputnik bring mankind closer together? Is the fear of Russian space-tech going to triumph over the shared excitement? The answer, of course, is yes. Sputnik is followed by Gagarin, a celebratory piece of funk and my favourite song on the album overall. It captures the absolute joy of the moment - the love the world had for Gagarin, the elation he must have felt being the first man to orbit the Earth.
This elation, though, is quickly swept aside with Fire in the Cockpit. I personally love the contradiction in the two tracks — for me, it really pushes that space is an unknown, something we can't control or predict. That space travel itself was experimental, and that everything comes at a cost. The track itself is sombre, quiet beeping and swelling violin undercutting a news broadcast detailing the deaths of Grissom, White, and Chaffee in the Apollo Saturn 204 disaster. When we remember our wins, we must remember our losses.
Next up is E.V.A, which begins with quiet anticipation. As the newscaster starts to talk, the drums amp up until it feels like you could burst from excitement. We're there with Leonov as he exits the spacecraft. Then, suddenly, silence. We're left on the edge of our seat - did he make it? did he die? - before the drums kick back in. He's walking in space, the newscaster tells us. He's walking in space!
I consider The Other Side to be a sister song to E.V.A. It's the turn of the Americans to push forward, to put a manned spacecraft on the moon. It follows the same kind of will they/won't they mood as E.V.A — we lose contact with the crew for a brief period, and we're left with the newscaster as we sit and wait. Did they make it? Did they die? The synths rise and swell as the drums kick in - they made it! They made it and we're in contact with them and god-fucking-damn there's a spacecraft on the moon and who could have EVER though that was possible?
After The Other Side comes Valentina, a soft introspective piece celebrating Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. She spent three days in orbit - longer than all the Americans put together at that point in time - but was never lauded the same way Gagarin was. Her flight was poorly publicised due to space sickness (not her fault, it's pretty hard being in space) and technical issues and so there are precious few recordings of her up there. Smoke Fairies have teamed with PBS to give the song an ethereal quality, something quietly contemplative. It feels, in a way, like a love song to Tereshkova, giving her the recognition away from the Soviet press machine and letting her stand on her own merits instead of comparing her to her male contemporaries.
The penultimate song is Go!, another piece of synthy funk built up around the most famous spaceflight of all - Apollo 8. The song samples the recordings of the control room who were manning the flight and we get another rise-and-fall moment as the chatter wanes and the different units pull together to make sure the flight goes okay.
Tomorrow, the last song, is a bittersweet eulogy to the space program. Chimes and a heavenly chorus in synth is the backdrop to the speech made on the 1972 trip to the moon - mankind's final visit.
It's not often you can foretell history, but I think we can in this case and I think everybody ought to feel very proud of that fact
This is our commemoration that will be here until someone like
'Til some of you who are out there who are the promise of the future
Come back to read it again
¹ The space race, not Tom Hanks going to space. I may have been eleven but I wasn't stupid.