According to the Guinness Book of Records, on 8 March 1969 Happy Birthday became the first song performed in outer space, when the Apollo 9 astronauts performed it to mark the 45th birthday of the mission’s aptly-named Flight Operations Director Chris Kraft.
There are, however, a few problems to that claim to fame. Firstly, Kraft’s birthday was actually 28 February; the Apollo 9 mission—and ultimately the crew’s performance—was delayed a few days to allow some of them to recover from a chest infection.
Secondly, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had reportedly sang a Russian song to himself during the re-entry of his Vostok 1 spacecraft eight years earlier, in April 1961. If so, that would make Happy Birthday only the first English song sung in outer space.
And thirdly, thanks to a prank pulled by the crew of Gemini 6 in 1965, the first song actually performed in space—albeit without lyrics—was perennial Christmas favourite Jingle Bells.
Dashing through the glow: In space no one can hear you sing (Wix)
Gemini 6 took off from Cape Kennedy—with astronauts Walter M Schirra Jr and Thomas P Stafford on board—a full four years before the Apollo 9 mission in December 1965. And, unbeknownst to the ground grew back at NASA, also on board was Walter Schirra’s smuggled harmonica and a small set of bells.
Knowing that they were due to return to Earth just a few days before Christmas, Schirra and Stafford spent a few days before lift-off rehearsing an appropriately festive performance. Then, as they blasted their way back into the Earth’s atmosphere on 16 December, Schirra relayed an unexpected message to the crew back at NASA:
We have an object [visible out of the window]. Looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit ... I see a command module, and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.
And with those words, the duo began an impromptu performance of Jingle Bells. Stafford later recalled that because neither man could carry a tune, they agreed that their performance should be a purely musical rendition, with Schirra playing the melody on his harmonica and Stafford accompanying him on the bells.
So Happy Birthday remains the first (English) song sung in space—but the first song ever performed there, thanks to the two-man crew of Gemini 6, was Jingle Bells.