As millions of Americans tuck into their Thanksgiving meals today, spare a thought for Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford and his Russian crewmates, Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeni Tarelkin—the present occupants of the International Space Station. Although primarily an American feast of thanks, it has become traditional for station crews of various nationalities to celebrate each other’s holiday periods, and all three men are expected to participate in an orbital meal today. Judging from a message from the three men earlier this week, Novitsky and Tarelkin are just as much in the holiday mood as their skipper.
Speaking a day or so after Sunday night’s departure of Expedition 33 crewmembers Suni Williams, Yuri Malenchenko, and Aki Hoshide, Ford gave his terrestrial watchers a glimpse of the foodstuffs that will be enjoyed over the holidays…as well as an acknowledgement of what Thanksgiving means to him. “One of the things we’re really thankful for—outside of our family and friends—is the support we receive from Earth 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all the year round, from our international flight control teams,” Ford began, whilst floating in the station’s pink-hued Unity node. Without further ado, like a child dipping into a Santa sack, he explored the Thanksgiving goodies: smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, a cranberry-peach drink, a cherry-peach cobbler dessert, potato au gratin, and several Russian specialities, including mashed potato and onion purée, together with an apple pudding. He also noted with pleasure that his ex-crewmate, Williams, had kindly left behind a packet of marshmallow cream for them to enjoy.
Closing out the televised message, Ford called Novitsky and Tarelkin over from the Russian segment of the station to offer their best wishes. “Hello guys,” Novitsky began. “Congratulations with Thanksgiving Day. All the best to you.” Tarelkin, wearing particularly striking and colourful trousers, also extended his good wishes. Finally, Ford closed out the message with an impressive zero-G somersault for the camera.
Many of the foods eaten in space are freeze-dried, requiring the addition of water, or are thermostabilised in a pouch. All of the fare which heads to the station must meet strict microbiological standards and have a long shelf-life. Astronauts and cosmonauts are also permitted to carry their own “bonus containers” of individual favourites, including cookies and even tubs of icing and food colouring. Yet celebrating the holidays in space predates by far the International Space Station era; in fact, the first Americans to observe Thanksgiving from orbit were the men of the final Skylab mission in November 1973…and two of them did so whilst spacewalking high above the Earth.
The EVA on 22 November was undertaken by astronauts Bill Pogue and Ed Gibson, who spent six-and-a-half hours outside Skylab, loading camera film into the station’s Apollo Telescope Mount and checking out a troublesome Earth-resources antenna. That evening, after returning inside, they celebrated Thanksgiving in fine style. Commander Gerry Carr ate prime ribs, whilst Gibson opted for turkey and Pogue for chicken. Space food in the 1970s, admittedly, was a far cry from its modern counterpart, but the men described it as good, albeit slightly bland. Condiments such as salt helped a little, although they could only be used sparingly, because the men’s diets were not allowed to interfere with the medical experiments.
Not for a dozen years, until November 1985, would another American crew celebrate the festival in orbit. Atlantis’ STS-61B crew had launched the day before Thanksgiving and several of them were still in the process of adapting to the peculiar weightless environment, and therefore their stomachs were in little mood for turkey and trimmings. Nonetheless, the astronauts had gotten themselves into the holiday spirit as they steeled themselves for the flight; crewman Woody Spring had invited as many of his friends and family as possible to be at the Kennedy Space Center for Atlantis’ night-time liftoff. In space, they managed to sample turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and corn. Pilot Bryan O’Connor struggled with the food. “The gravy didn’t taste very good to me,” he told the NASA oral historian. “The mashed potatoes were great…but I didn’t go for that turkey.” Nonetheless, he was appreciative of the fact that the food preparation staff had thought of them on Thanksgiving Day, and the meal proved something of a “morale builder”.
The first astronauts to spend two Thanksgiving holidays in space were Fred Gregory and Story Musgrave, who flew together on the classified STS-33 and STS-44 missions in November 1989 and November 1991. For Gregory, it was nice to be able eat with his crewmates in a civilised manner at the same time. On a previous mission, he described eating in orbit as “grazing”—“You would go down and perhaps get a package of beefsteak and heat it and cut it open and eat it”—but not so on Thanksgiving. Gregory ensured that both of his crews ate their meals together, with food on trays.
Five years after STS-44, in November 1996, two American “crews” celebrated in orbit. The STS-80 crew were midway through an 18-day mission and their Thanksgiving turkey dinners were tinged with disappointment, for astronauts Tammy Jernigan and Tom Jones were supposed to venture outside on a six-hour EVA to demonstrate space station construction methods. Their excursion was cancelled when the outer hatch of Columbia’s airlock failed to open, due to a loose screw lodged in an actuator. Uniquely, at the same time, astronaut John Blaha was aboard the Mir space station and although he and his Russian crewmates, Valeri Korzun and Aleksandr Kaleri, worked the holiday, they did have some quiet celebratory time. A Progress resupply craft docked on 20 November and brought fresh fruit and early Christmas presents, and on Thanksgiving Blaha snatched a few moments to watch the ever-changing beauty of Earth through Mir’s windows.
A year later, two more teams of astronauts—the crew of STS-87 and Mir resident Dave Wolf—also spent time off the planet during the holiday season. During an interview, Wolf admitted that he missed his family and friends, but stressed that “right now, I live in space and I like living here and I sure look forward to living on the ground and seeing everybody again”. Meanwhile, aboard Columbia, a joint crew of Americans, a Ukrainian, and a Japanese astronaut celebrated with turkey, cranberries, pumpkin cookies, and pecan pie.
Not until November 2000 would another American—the International Space Station’s first commander, Bill Shepherd—celebrate the holiday whilst in orbit…and since then every Thanksgiving has seen at least one US resident aboard. Shepherd and crewmates Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko were four weeks into their expedition aboard the fledgling station, but managed to find time to enjoy a meal of ham and smoked turkey in the Zvezda service module. A year later, with Frank Culbertson cutting the turkey with a pocket knife, the crew of Expedition 3 also gathered around Zvezda’s dinner table, and in November 2002—for the first time—a Shuttle crew was also present, as Endeavour’s STS-113 astronauts joined Expedition 5 for an unprecedented ten-member meal. Astronauts Mike Lopez-Alegria and John Herrington performed an EVA on Thanksgiving to outfit the station’s new P-1 truss segment. “After a challenging day of work,” recalled Expedition 5 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson, “we celebrated with smoked turkey in foil pouches, re-hydrated mashed potatoes—unfortunately sans gravy—and re-hydrated green beans with mushrooms.” The meal closed with a dessert of blueberry-cherry cobbler on tortilla, brought from Earth as a gift from the STS-113 visitors.
If Thanksgiving in 2002 was challenging, then the following year must have been equally so, for it came just months after the tragic loss of Columbia. The International Space Station remained permanently occupied, thanks to Russia’s Soyuz, and Mike Foale and Aleksandr Kaleri celebrated quietly as construction of the multi-national outpost, for a time, ground to a halt. November 2004 saw Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov aboard the ISS, followed by Bill McArthur and Valeri Tokarev in November 2005 and a return to normal three-man operations in November 2006 with Mike Lopez-Alegria, Mikhail Tyurin, and Germany’s Thomas Reiter. Lopez-Alegria became the first American to celebrate two ISS Thanksgivings in orbit and was joined in this fraternity by Peggy Whitson, in command of Expedition 16, in November 2007. Whitson and her crewmates, Yuri Malenchenko and Dan Tani, dined on shrimp cocktail, smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, and, she said, “lots of hot sauce!”
Since STS-61B, no fewer than eight Shuttle crews have celebrated Thanksgiving in space. The astronauts of STS-126 arrived in November 2008, joining Expedition 18 and boosting the station’s population to ten, and Don Pettit and Steve Bowen took the opportunity to share an innovative technique for sharing toasts in the weightless environment. (They only drank tea, though.) A year later, in November 2009, the astronauts of STS-129 became the last Shuttle crew ever to spend the holidays aloft. They had recently undocked from the International Space Station, leaving Expedition 21 to its own devices. Although they celebrated with a Thanksgiving meal, their main thanks were reserved for Atlantis herself, whose critical thermal-protection system had been cleared for re-entry.
With the extension of station operations until at least 2020—and possibly as far as 2028, the 30th anniversary of the first launch—it would appear that Americans will continue to spend Thanksgiving aboard the ISS for many years to come. According to the present manifest, next year’s holiday season will see Mike Hopkins as the sole US resident of the outpost and 2014 will see Barry Wilmore and possibly Reid Wiseman or Terry Virts, depending on how the schedule of Soyuz launches works out. By 2015, it is likely that the American occupant of the ISS will be partway through the United States’ first year-long expedition, truly a time for celebration.