A First in the Space Race

In the mid-1960s, the space race, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, Cold War rivals, was at its peak. At first, the Soviet Union was ahead. They sent up the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), sent the first human into space (Yuri Gagarin), and had the first human make a “spacewalk” (Alexei Leonov). America had to play catch up, but had several firsts as well. This is the true story about one of the American firsts in space.

Launching people into space has always been dangerous, and so it was with the Gemini 6 mission. Gemini 6, crewed by command pilot Walter Schirra and pilot Thomas Stafford, was scheduled for launch on October 25, 1965. One of their main objectives included four dockings with an unmanned space vehicle, the Agena Target Vehicle. On the morning of October 25, Schirra and Stafford boarded the Gemini 6 spacecraft and prepared for launch. During their preparations, NASA launched the unmanned target vehicle on a separate rocket. Six minutes into the unmanned craft’s flight, a catastrophic failure caused it to explode. As the target vehicle was needed for the mission, NASA cancelled the Gemini 6 launch.

NASA rescheduled the spaceflight for December 12, 1965, with an altered mission objective referred to as Gemini 6A, to rendezvous but not dock with Gemini 7, a spacecraft crewed by command pilot Frank Borman and piloted by James “Jim” Lovell. As they had done on the previous launch attempt, Schirra and Stafford boarded the spacecraft and prepared for launch. At 9:54 a.m., the main engines ignited and, after just a second and a half, shut down abruptly. Engineers determined the cause of the problem was a plastic dust cover mistakenly left inside the booster when it was assembled months earlier. Engineers removed the cover and, after reinspecting the spacecraft, deemed it safe to fly.

Three days later, on the morning of December 15, astronauts Schirra and Stafford boarded the rocket for another attempt. At 8:37, the spacecraft lifted off and rocketed into space in what engineers called a textbook launch. After four orbits, Gemini 6A propelled towards Gemini 7 for the planned rendezvous. The two spacecrafts carefully positioned themselves, and at one point, came within one foot of each other, and the astronauts conversed over their radios. This was the first rendezvous of two spacecrafts in space. After nearly four hours of remaining together in close proximity, Gemini 6A positioned itself 19 miles from Gemini 7 to ensure that there would be no accidental collisions while the astronauts slept.

On the following morning, December 16, 1965, as the crew of Gemini 6A prepared for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, they radioed a distressing message to the Houston space center:

“…this is Gemini VI. We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He’s in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a … Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one … You might just let me try to pick up that thing.”

Then, over the radio, Gemini 7 and the Houston space center heard a metallic jingling sound along with some musical notes. They were relieved when they realized that Schirra was playing a harmonica and Stafford was shaking some bells, instruments that the stowage people at Cape Kennedy would have had to approve for the flight. This was another first in the space race as it was the first song ever played in space. The name of the song astronauts Schirra and Stafford played in space was “Jingle Bells.”

1. The Buffalo News, December 16, 1965, p.1.
2. The Raleigh Register, December 16, 1965, p.15.
3. The Buffalo News, December 16, 1965, p.1.
4. “First Song Played in Space,” Guinness World Records, accessed December 8, 2022, guinnessworldrecords.com.

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