When the Chromatics launched their first AstroCappella CD in 1998, it took off. But a year later, it really took off, when the a cappella disc blasted into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
With songs like "HST Bop!" -- about the Hubble Space Telescope, set to the tune of Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop" -- the six-song compact disc hitched a ride after a former member of the Chromatics slipped a copy to an astronaut co-worker.
It's a fitting venue for the work of a group that includes members as comfortable in a high-energy astrophysics lab as on the stage. The seven-member troupe blends its talents and voices to make ear-catching music with an educational twist.
They sing about the sun, the moon, X-rays and gamma rays, nuclear fusion, black holes, quasars and sunspots.
And the songs -- sometimes set to tunes borrowed from popular rock songs -- stick in your head, so you can't forget things like the morphology of the sun even if you want to.
"Once kids learn the songs, they've learned the concepts," said Padi Boyd, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Center.
She started singing with the vocal ensemble, which is mostly made up of scientists and technicians, shortly after it was formed in 1993 and serves as musical director.
Boyd, of Greenbelt, says that the Chromatics' AstroCappella and its follow-up disc, AstroCappella 2.0, were developed with teacher collaboration to present scientific concepts to middle school and high school students.
The first CD was funded by an education grant through Goddard and distributed with lesson booklets free to science teachers across the country. The latest AstroCappella 2.0, independently released this fall, is a CD-ROM, featuring video images, lesson plans and related activities to enhance each of the 13 tracks.
Lisa Kelleher, one of two vocalists from Ellicott City, works at Goddard as an accountant.
"We all have hidden talents and hidden motivations," said Kelleher, 34, a lifelong Howard County resident who has always had a penchant for music, performing in musical productions when she was a student at Hammond High School.
Kelleher and Boyd met in 1994 through Goddard's employee drama club, Music And Drama (MAD). After hearing Kelleher sing, Boyd persuaded her to try out for the Chromatics. "I thought she would be a really good match for the group," Boyd said.
For a cappella groups, a good match is essential, says Paul Kolb, a "Chromie" who also lives in Ellicott City. "Some voices are fabulous, but they don't blend," he said. "You don't have to be Luciano Pavarotti to sing with the Chromatics. That would be a handicap. You wouldn't blend, you would stick out like a sore thumb."
Kolb is a nonscientist and nontechie with no Goddard connection. He says that he ensures the lyrics are comprehensible in layman's terms.
The Chromatics have performed all over the country, including Las Vegas, the White House and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In November, they were featured at the opening of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Exploring the Universe exhibit, singing under the Hubble model.
The group's CD caught the space shuttle in 1999 after former Chromatic and Goddard scientist Steve Leete slipped a disc to astronaut John M. Grunsfeld, whom Leete was helping to train for a mission.
"Steve thought he would like 'HST Bop!,'" Boyd said, referring to the track about the Hubble, penned by Kelleher's husband, Bill.
Grunsfeld not only liked it, he brought it along on his 3.3 million-mile journey, traveling at speeds up to 17,805 mph.
"As a former high-energy astrophysicist, and fan of space science at GSFC, I was happy to take [the disc] up with me to the Hubble," he said in an e-mail last weekend from Johnson Space Center.
Grunsfeld was preparing for today's scheduled mission aboard Space Shuttle Columbia to make repairs and upgrades to the Hubble. Wonder if he will be humming "HST Bop!" along the way?
The Chromatics will perform in the Mid-Atlantic Region Harmony Sweepstakes Saturday at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. Concert information or to order CDs: www.thechromatics.com