Astronauts, Psychonauts and Electronauts

Graham St John

Griffith University (Australia)

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2014.06.02.10

I was recently asked to write a commentary on one among many of the extraordinary works produced by Gwyllm Llwydd for a forthcoming book of his artworks. With influences from Willifred Sätty, Max Ernst, Rick Griffin and Buddhist Mandala Art, Llwydd's psychedelic art is produced via paint and digital media. In the 1960s he formed DIY Press, a publishing company for street poets. In the 1980s, he formed early electronica band Grey Pavilion which migrated between LA and London. Besides painting, Llwydd today lives in the Pacific Northwest publishing The Invisible College magazine, operating the Turfing blog and selecting at Radio Earthrites. I chose to comment on Llwydd’s “Astronaut”, the contemplation of which gave me pause to recall Apollo 14 lunar module pilot, Edgar Mitchell, whose return journey to Earth in 1971 was occasioned by a powerful savikalpa samadhi experience. Uniquely exposed to Earth from space, Mitchell, who later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, recalls: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it”.

Figure 1. Astronaut by Gwyllm Llwydd (

The revelations of Mitchell and his fellow gnostronauts in NASA's Space Program of the 1960s and at the turn of the 1970s, are felt by subsequent generations—a revelatory mood beautifully captured in “Astronaut”. The work is a rendering of Ed White, the first American to walk in space, during the Gemini 4 mission on 3 June 1965. The psychedelicising of this historic EVA (extra-vehicular activity) performance over Earth, gives me pause to reflect on the interwoven trajectories of outer and inner space farers. I'm given to contemplate ways the space odyssey, and the adventures, trials and insights of astronauts, have been appropriated to narrate the psychedelic journey; how the mid-twentieth century aeronautical mission out into orbit would serve to allegorize the inward journeys associated with contemporaneous psychedelia, for which the figure of the astronaut—typically alone in space—offered, and continues to offer, iconic décor. While the marriage of inner and outer space was apparent in the psychedelic art of the late 1960s and early 1970s (i.e. at the culmination of the space race and the NASA Apollo missions), it would be revisited by psychedelic electronic musicians from the 1990s, and it is here stunningly depicted by Llwydd.

In recent preoccupations, I've given thought to the remixtical artifice of psychedelic electronica, downstream from a cosmic music tradition. Like media shamans and sound engineers in a psychedelic space program, DJ/producers lift scripted lines from science fiction cinema and spoken material from other popular cultural sources pressed into the service of the transcendent states that are evoked, imitated and enabled through this artifice. In the context of dance events, from small parties to larger festivals, these pop-cult fragments are part of a liminal assemblage of sensory technologies and spiritechnics that optimise, enhance and comment on extraordinary states of consciousness. In recent years, I’ve grown interested in the way vocal samples are repurposed to narrate the psychedelic journey and its potential for mystical experiences out of body, out of mind and off the planet, so often associated with alien contact and entity encounters, potentiating serious re-evaluations of the self. Here I sample a few samples. For further details, see my article “Aliens Are Us” (St John 2013).

“Imagine yourself in infinite space floating”. This call to disembodiment was made by one of the most enduring Goatrance artists, Space Tribe, on “All You Need Is Spirit And Nothing” (The Ultraviolet Catastrophe, 1997) evoking a state of mind in meditation, or the sensation experienced in an isolation tank, or under the influence of LSD. Using early samplers, the flotation bath had been entered at the roots of cosmic trance when, for instance, the Belgian outfit D.I.D (Osvaldo La Rosa and Benny Augustyniak) released versions of their classic “Orbital Walk” (D.I.D, Alcyone, 1992; D.I.D, Astronomia, 1993) in which they sampled a Soviet cosmonaut—presumably Alexei Leonov, who, on the Voskhod 2 mission, was the first man to walk in space on 18 March 1965—reporting on his space walk. The transfigurement in the psychedelic journey, the distance of space farers from base-consciousness (“Houston”), and the potential for encounters with the Other, are themes artists have regularly depicted using the mission dialogue of NASA astronauts. “Boy, it’s just beautiful up here looking out the window—it’s just really fantastic”, reports Apollo 16 Commander John W. Young, on KLF’s “What Time Is Love? (Live At Trancentral)” (1990).

These re-mediations preceded an avalanche of repurposed dialogue over the subsequent decades. In “trance” music intentionally produced to affect a journey, often performed in contexts where interactive audiences are undergoing psychedelic journeys, producers sought the means to narrate the sensation of psychic transportation. Masterfully harvesting space travel tropes to orchestrate the sensation of weightlessness, The Infinity Project were chief among seminal Goatrance acts. Their 1992 techno-trance journey, “Zero Gravity” from Tribadelic Meltdown features an astronaut reporting on the sensation of “perfect zero gravity”, and claiming “you can feel it shake, there’s a real strong vibration”.

This perfect place in space so regularly depicted in sound-bytes and graphic arts represents optimal conditions for achieving gnosis. An untitled track (“B2”) on TIP's 1993 Time and Space EP features space-avatar Dave Bowman’s eureka moment from unedited versions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My god, it’s full of stars!” Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s epic novel, featuring one of the most powerfully gnostic narratives in cinema, 2001 is among the most sampled films in psyculture.

Space has been a source of awe throughout recorded human history, its depths occulting mysteries of origin and destination, genesis and apocalypse, with the mid-twentieth century penetration of space a theatre for astrofuturist salvationism as promoted by visionaries like Clarke and Robert R. Heinlein, its conquest a route to consciousness evolution according to Timothy Leary and otherwise providing an allegory for percipience—the journey into the mind. This is evident, for example, in the work of popular astronomer and author Carl Sagan, who, sampled on “Self-Discovery” by Cosmosis (Fumbling For The Funky Frequency, 2009), announces: “We journey from ignorance to knowledge. Growth reflects the advancement of the species. The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery”.

Figure 2. Cosmosis, Fumbling For The Funky Frequency (2009).

But it is the iconic figure of the astronaut to whom I return. It was the space technicians, aeronautical engineers, unlikely mystics, who, returning from their trip, gifted humanity images of our home from space, a boon that historically coincided with the birth of psychedelia. The only words on Israeli Goa legends Astral Projection’s track “Black and White” are from December 1968 Apollo 8 mission Commander Frank Borman: “And the view of the Earth, it was the only place in the universe that had any color. Everything else was black and white” (Trust in Trance, 1996). The remarks speak to what has been identified as the greatest revelation of the Apollo missions—deriving not from rocks gathered on the Moon, but from Earth, the awesome sight of which over the lunar horizon startled Borman and his crew, the first humans to witness the Earth from the Moon’s orbit.

Indeed the “Earthrise” photograph taken at that time by Apollo 8 crewman William Anders would become one of the most important photographs in history. Offering the “Overview Effect”, Earthrise and the later Whole Earth image taken on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, would confirm the idea of “Spaceship Earth”, recently projected in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 science fiction thriller Gravity (in which a woman, Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, unassumingly adopts the role of the space avatar).

Figure 3. Earthrise (1972). Photo credit: NASA.

The new perspective was amplified by the cosmic engineers of Goatrance and their progeny. Producing as Asia 2001, the space-struck Gilbert Thévenet, for instance, laid down the gnosis on “” (, 1996): “Gaia became visible through the new knowledge about the Earth gained from space. Gaia is the Earth seen as a single physiological system, an entity that is alive”. By using such material, producers were enabling dance floor habitués to approximate the revelatory satori of those space voyagers. And so, on his ascendant opus, “Go For Orbit” (Super Collider, 2010), Aphid Moon dropped the payload delivered by Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan, the last man to step off the Moon (on 14 December 1972):

You really know where are you at this point in time and space, and in reality and in existence, when you look out the window and you’re looking back at the most beautiful star in the heavens, the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and know it as home, its humanity, its people, family, love and life. You can see from pole to pole, and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up. And it’s moving in a blankness that is almost beyond conception.

While astronauts are explorers of outer, and psychonauts explorers of inner, space, their common legacy are the challenges and perils faced while navigating uncharted terrain, the overcoming of which potentiates threshold objectives for humankind. This heroic testing of the limits was a theme that continually arose in the work of psychonaut Terence McKenna, who once stated with regard to psychedelics:

you are an explorer and you represent our species and the greatest good we can do is to bring back a new idea because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness. To whatever degree any one of us can bring back a small piece of the picture and contribute it to the building of the new paradigm, then we participate in the redemption of the human spirit.

Imbricating hallucinogenic mushrooms and DMT in particular, these lines have been sampled many times over—I first heard this aboard Burn in Noise’s “Transparent” (Passing Clouds, 2008). In this electrosonic fiction, the voice of McKenna comes over like the Flight Director from Houston. McKenna was at pains to point out that the objective of the “trip” was not the psychotherapeutic advancement of the self, but consciousness evolution, and that the psychedelic mission was laden with risks. One had to be prepared to place one's accepted worldview in danger of being ripped apart. And again we find direct comparison with the astronaut for whom the risks have been of a different order, as exemplified by Ed White himself, who died alongside two other astronauts in the Apollo 1 command module in an explosion during a prelaunch test at Cape Canaveral on 27 January 1967.

When White was finally coaxed back into the spacecraft after his 20-minute spacewalk in June 1965, he had commented: “It's the saddest moment of my life”. Higher than any human had ever been, he knew he’d never achieve such heights again.

Author Biography

Graham St John (PhD) is an Australian anthropologist and cultural historian of electronic dance music movements and their event-cultures with an interest in their complex religious and performative characteristics. He has been awarded postdoctoral fellowships in Australia, United States, Canada and Switzerland and is author of six books including Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance (Equinox, 2012), and Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures (2009). He is Executive Editor of Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, and Adjunct Research Fellow in the Griffith Centre for Cultural Research, Griffith University.


St John, Graham.2013. “Aliens Are Us: Cosmic Liminality, Remixticism and Alienation in Psytrance”. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 25 (2): 186–204. <>.


Aphid Moon. 2010. Super Collider (CD, Album): APHIDCD001.

Asia 2001. 1996. . Trans'Pact Productions (CD, Album): 096 - 002.

Astral Projection. 1996. Trust in Trance. Phonokol (CD, Album): 2041-2.

Burn In Noise. 2008. Passing Clouds. Alchemy Records (CD, Mixed): ALCD026.

Cosmosis. 2009. Fumbling For The Funky Frequency. Holophonic Records (CD, Album): HOLO 606.

D.I.D. 1992. Alcyone. Buzz (Vinyl, 12-inch): BZZXL 106093.

D.I.D. 1993. Astronomia. Buzz (CD, Album): BZZCD 106113.

Infinity Project, The. 1992. Tribadelic Meltdown. Fabulous Music UK (Vinyl, 12-inch, EP): FABU 016T.

Infinity Project, The. 1993. Time And Space. Dragonfly (Vinyl, 12-inch, EP, Promo, White Label): BFLT 9.

KLF. 1990. What Time Is Love? (Live At Trancecentral). KLF Communications (Vinyl, 12-inch, 45 RPM): KLF 004 X.

Space Tribe. 1997. The Ultraviolet Catastrophe. Spirit Zone (CD, Album): SPIRITZONE031.


Cuarón, Alfonso. 2013. Gravity. Warner Bros.