The Day Two Astronauts Said They Saw a U.F.O. Wearing a Red Suit

When orbiting pranksters Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford launched into “Jingle Bells,” Mission Control almost lost control

Jingle Bells
For Christmas in 1965, astronauts Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr and Thomas P. Stafford played "Jingle Bells" aboard Gemini 6. National Air and Space Museum

As a distant war was intensifying and the city of New Orleans was slowly recovering from a hurricane's devastation, ten days before Christmas 1965, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration got an early holiday present: astronauts Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford, aboard Gemini 6, rendezvoused in space with Gemini 7, piloted by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell.

Gemini 6 had been launched into orbit several days after Gemini 7. Schirra and Stafford maneuvered their capsule to within a few feet of the sister ship for the first, historic, prearranged meeting in space. (Schirra then eased his craft away, and the crews settled in for a short winter's nap.) The maneuver required the most exacting pilot and computer control of a space vehicle yet attempted. Its success demonstrated to Mission Control that when it came to linking two vehicles in space, Houston did not have a problem.

Then, just before Stafford and Schirra were scheduled to reenter Earth's atmosphere December 16, the pair reported they had sighted some sort of U.F.O. Schirra recounted the moment when Stafford contacted Mission Control in Schirra's Space, a memoir he wrote with Richard Billings:

"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."

The bells and the Hohner harmonica, played in space, are on view in the museum's exhibition "Apollo to the Moon." National Air and Space Museum

Then ground controllers heard the strains, both familiar and otherworldly, of "Jingle Bells," played on a harmonica backed by—what else?—miniature sleigh bells. Today that harmonica, a tiny, four-hole, eight-note Little Lady model manufactured by Hohner, as well as five small bells of the kind that might embellish a Christmas wreath, reside in a gallery on the second floor of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The quirky artifacts, which Schirra and Stafford donated in 1967, are included in a display of personal items astronauts have taken into space, along with such standard-issue gear as long underwear and survival knives. According to curator Margaret A. Weitekamp, the harmonica and bells were the first musical instruments ever played in space.

The right stuff may be a critical requirement for astronauts. But in the early days of space exploration, there wasn't much room for stuff of any kind, though each astronaut was allowed to bring along a handful of personal items, usually consisting of small souvenirs the astronauts wanted to bring back as presents. "I think people are fascinated by the detail and textures of what people have taken into space," Weitekamp says. "We want to remind the public that these cramped quarters were the workplaces of these men. They wanted to personalize their workplaces just as others personalize their offices and cubicles."

Music, of course, was not new to space. Mission Control routinely used recorded songs to wake up astronauts. But live music from space represented a giant leap for the performing arts, not to mention Santa's public relations. The astronauts' performance was a larky gesture not equaled until Alan Shepard turned the lunar surface into a golf driving range.

The Santa Claus plot had been hatched weeks before the Gemini 6 mission. "Wally came up with the idea," recalls Stafford, now a retired Air Force general, who chairs an International Space Station advisory group. "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 bushelbasket."

"I could hear the voices at Mission Control getting tense," Stafford adds, "when I talked about sighting something else up there with us. Then, after we finished the song, [Mission Control's] Elliot See relaxed and just said, 'You're too much.'"

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