Some of them calculate astronomical trajectories for a living, while others write computer software. Others design and operate sophisticated equipment, and some educate young students about science and mathematics. They work long hours collecting complex data, programming high-tech imaging systems, and planning deep space flybys, gravity assists, and atmospheric insertions-all of which may seem like a foreign language to us.
Members of the Cassini Virtual Singers
But once in a while, during lunch hour they retreat to an empty office and they let their imagination "fly" wild. That is, they sing.
Welcome to the Cassini Virtual Singers, a group of technicians, scientists and engineers working on the Cassini-Huygens Mission to the Saturnian region. The group delights colleagues and friends with creative renditions of famous tunes in which the harmony remains the same, but the lyrics reflect the subjects of their daily lives.
"It's a chance to be creative together and not just not in an engineering sense," says Karen Chan, Cassini Program secretary and a member of the Cassini Virtual Singers since April, 1998.
"Many members are excellent singers and some might even sing professionally," Chan said. However, the driving force and the reason behind the group's popularity is the chance to have fun with friends and colleagues.
"I sing because I like to, not because I'm good at it," Chan candidly admits. "It's a lot of fun."
Because its members all have a deep passion for music, the group debuted by singing for their colleagues at JPL's Christmas party in 1997. It was two months after the successful launch of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and they celebrated the holiday spirit singing tunes such as "The 12 Days of ATLO," -- an acronym that stands for Assembly, Test and Launch Operations, the grueling tests the spacecraft underwent before it was launched; and "Take Me Out There to Titan," based on melody of the famed seventh-inning stretch all baseball fans know by heart.
While it should be noted that the gig didn't get them a contract with a major record company, someone in the audience liked them enough to book them a gig in front of the Executive Council, JPL's governing body. One of the group's more notable fans was Dr. Ed Stone, former JPL director, who was known to stop in on the group's performances between meetings.
Among the crowd-pleasers was a song based on an old Beatles' hit in which the group's lyrics matched rather well with the phonetics of the original. The rendition, called "Back to the New SSR" refers to a Solid State Recorder, the device onboard the Cassini spacecraft that records images and information -"backing" the data that will later be sent to Earth.
As it's often said for the Beatles, to whom the Virtual Singers can hardly be compared-- the rest is history. As their popularity and repertoire grew exponentially, gig offers abounded. Despite relocations and job-reassignments, members coming and going, the spirit remained the same ever since that first Christmas gig, appropriately named "Have Fun and Sing the Glory of the Cassini-Huygens Mission."
These days, the group has two-dozen singers and a repertoire of more than 50 songs. Among the most popular items are songs like, "Cassini Goes On," based on the tune from the movie "Titanic" and "Every Turn You Make," a rendition of the Police hit, "Every Breath You Take."
The group also "employs" two talented musicians. Guitarist Fred Chrisney, a software engineer by day, strums musical arrangements in various keys, accommodating the vocal ranges of the singers.
While some songs are sung a cappella, others benefit from full orchestra accompaniment, courtesy of Dave Coppedge, also a software engineer, who provides elaborate background instrumental harmonies recorded on his home computer.
After a seven-year journey, the Cassini-Huygens mission will arrive at Saturn in July 2004. Without a doubt, the Cassini Virtual Singers will have plenty of new tunes and ballads to celebrate the historic adventure to one of the most mysterious and intriguing areas in our solar system.