Ten days before Christmas, Dec. 15, 1965, NASA celebrated as spaceships Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 successfully completed a non-docking orbital rendezvous, an historic first. The next morning, as Gemini 6 was preparing to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, Mission Control in Houston heard a cryptic message from astronaut Thomas P. Stafford:
“We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit…. Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon…. You just might let me pick up that thing…. I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.”
Stafford later related that "I could hear the voices at Mission Control getting tense when I talked about sighting something else up there with us.”
But moments later, ground controllers heard the strains of “Jingle Bells,” played on a miniature harmonica and accompanied by five miniature sleigh bells.
“Then, after we finished the song,” Stafford continued, “[Mission Control’s] Elliot relaxed and just said, ’You’re too much.'"
The plot had been hatched in the weeks before the mission by astronaut Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., according to Stafford. “He could play the harmonica, and we practiced two or three times before we took off, but of course we didn’t tell the guys on the ground….We never considered singing, since I couldn’t carry a tune in a bushel basket.”
The harmonica was Hohner’s tiny four-hole, eight-note “Little Lady.” The accompaniment was five small bells, tied on a blue string. The harmonica and bells were the first musical instruments ever played in space, according to curator Margaret A. Weitekamp. The items were donated to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum by Schirra and Stafford in 1967. Before he donated it to the Smithsonian, Schirra reported that he had “retested the harmonica and it performs quite well.”