Ooh, Interesting! - How Jingle Bells became the first song broadcast in Space

December 18, 2015

We here at Sternberg Clarke Towers have been getting into the Christmas spirit for the past few weeks but it is only now that we have realised this is the last Ooh, Interesting! before we all take a break and enjoy the Christmas holidays. With that in mind, we thought we’d try and find you a fun fascinating fact that celebrates the festive season. Lo and behold, we think we’ve found one!

Jingle Bells is a Christmas classic that was written by James Lord Pierpoint in 1850, though exactly where it was written is a matter for dispute. Apparently inspired by the sleigh races that were at the time very popular in the town of Medford, Massachusetts, Pierpoint originally composed the song under the title of ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’ for Thanksgiving celebrations. Seven years later it was finally copyrighted, before a revised version entitled ‘Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh’ was published in 1859, the extra part of its name apparently coming when one of Pierpoint’s friends, Mrs. Otis Waterman, described the tune as a “merry little jingle”.

Over the past 150 years, the song has been sang all over the world, translated into various versions and is one of the most performed and recognisable secular holiday songs ever written. The Three Tenors recorded a version, Bart Simpson sang Jingle Bells in the very first Simpsons episode and a novelty recording with dogs barking has even been released. Thanks, Denmark! But how did it become the first song to be broadcast in space?

It’s a far more interesting story than you might expect with two astronauts from Gemini  6, Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra, playing a prank on Mission Control on 16th December 1965. You might be thinking that when you’re in space on a hugely expensive flight that there’s no place for jokes but clearly when it’s as good as this, it’s well worth it.

“Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI,” their speech began. “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 from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio.” At this point, NASA was presumably deeply concerned but the men continued regardless, “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.”

Without receiving approval from their superiors, the astronauts then produced a smuggled Hohner harmonica and sleigh balls – yep, they really went all the way with this prank – and performed a rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’.  The best bit? The recording exists and you can hear it below.

And since you’re no doubt still thinking about it, here's the recording of the dogs barking as well.

Have a wonderfully Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!




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By Henry Fosdike