The first musical instruments played in space

Many significant milestones were reached during the Space Race. Gemini 6A achieved one of the most important: the first ever rendezvous in space. However, that wasn’t the only ‘first’ it achieved.

Just under 24 hours into the 26-hour-long mission of December 1965, astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford made a mysterious call to Mission Control and to their colleagues Frank Borman and Jim Lovell in Gemini 7.

“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in a polar orbit,” Schirra began. “He’s in a very low trajectory travelling from north to south.”

Stafford (standing, left) and Schirra (seated) suit up prior to Gemini 6A | Credit: NASA

No doubt many ears pricked up in Mission Control at that. An unidentified satellite? An unidentified flying object, even?

“It’s very low,” Schirra continued. “Looks like he may be going to re-enter pretty soon. Stand by one, it looks like he’s trying to signal us.”

Any illusions Mission Control might have held about what it was Schirra and Stafford had spotted were immediately shattered by the sudden and disembodied sound of a harmonica over the comms channel.

Schirra, in true Christmas spirit, had started to play ‘Jingle Bells’, with Stafford shaking a set of six metallic sleigh bells to accompany him. They were the first musical instruments played in outer space.

Audio recording of Gemini 6A’s ‘encounter’ with an unidentified satellite | Credit: Smithsonian

Gemini 7’s Jim Lovell got in on the act too, saying, “We got ’em too, Six!”

“That was live, Seven, not taped,” Schirra added.

“You’re too much, Six!” said slightly-exasperated CapCom Elliot See.

Each Gemini spacesuit had a small pocket on one leg, which is how Schirra and Stafford were able to secretly smuggle the harmonica and bells into space. Making their job a lot easier was the fact that the model of harmonica Schirra used – a Hohner “Little Lady” – is the smallest playable harmonica in the world, measuring just one and a half inches long. He attached it to his spacesuit using Velcro and dental floss when he wasn’t using it to make sure it didn’t float away.

The duo donated the instruments to the Smithsonian in 1967.

Gemini 6A’s harmonica | Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Gemini 6A’s bells | Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

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