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'Fifteen Midnights': Celebrating the New Year in Space

Bill Shepherd (center) and his Expedition 1 crewmates Yuri Gidzenko (left) and Sergei Krikalev juggle oranges during their time aboard the International Space Station. They celebrated both Christmas and the dawn of 2001 in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Bill Shepherd (center) and his Expedition 1 crewmates, Yuri Gidzenko (left) and Sergei Krikalev, juggle oranges during their time aboard the International Space Station. They celebrated both Christmas and the dawn of 2001 in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

With a naval officer in command of the International Space Station, it might have seemed obvious that New Year’s Day 2001 would carry a corresponding nautical tradition. Astronaut Bill Shepherd and his Russian crewmates, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, rang in the start of what would turn out to be one of the United States’ darkest years with private family conferences and an awareness that a busy few weeks lay ahead. The infant station had just received its first massive set of power-producing solar arrays, and in mid-January it was expected that the STS-98 shuttle crew would deliver the Destiny laboratory. Spending New Year in orbit is nothing new; since the voyage of Skylab 4 in 1973-74, the transition has been celebrated by Americans and Russians, Japanese and Italians, Dutchmen and Canadians, too. All have passed the time quietly, watching the Home Planet for a glimpse of fireworks and marveling at the accomplishments of one year and sharing hope for the promise of the next.

As 2001 began, Shepherd honored his military heritage by sharing a poem about his 10-weeks-and-counting experience aboard the station. “In long-standing naval tradition,” he explained, “the first entry in a ship’s log for the New Year is always recorded in prose.” And without further ado, he waxed lyrical about his crew’s journey, “orbiting high above Earth…traveling our destined journey beyond realm of sea voyage or flight”. Shepherd wrote about ringing in a new era as Earth itself revolved, “counting the last thousand years done”, for 1 January 2001—although the second year of a new decade—actually marked the official start of the 21st century. Then Shepherd added an interesting observation to his piece: “Fifteen midnights to this night in orbit; a clockwork not of earthly pace.” For as he and Krikalev and Gidzenko circled the globe at 17,500 mph (28,100 km/h), they passed through numerous time zones and “saw” numerous New Years.

Since December 2000, a multi-national mix of Americans and Russians, Japanese and Italians, a Dutchman and a Canadian have celebrated Christmas aboard the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Since December 2000, a multi-national mix of Americans and Russians, Japanese and Italians, a Dutchman, and a Canadian have celebrated Christmas aboard the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

For Shepherd, being in this “new age and place” on such a significant date carried a juxtaposition of the romance and adventure of the past and the scientific and technological possibilities of the future. As he watched “screens dancing shapes in pale glow / We guide her course by electronic pulse” and acknowledged the important role played by his ship’s solar panels and stabilizing gyroscopes, he could not escape from the reality that this had few of the navigational devices of old. “On this ship’s deck,” Shepherd wrote, “sits no helm now / Rudder, sheet and rigs long since gone / but here still – a pull to go places / Beyond lines where sky meets the dawn.” Still, his prose was laced with traces of older times: Though star trackers mark Altair and Vega, same as mariners eyed long ago, we are still as wayfinders of knowledge, seeking new things that mankind shall know.

Of course, the International Space Station runs on Greenwich Mean Time, and Shepherd and his men had their own “official” moment of midnight, but the peculiarity of their position induced much fascination back on Earth. In spite of their on-board clocks, they exchanged earlier greetings with mission controllers in Moscow (at GMT+3 hours) and later ones with Houston (at GMT-6 hours).

Shepherd’s Expedition 1 crew was by no means the first team of spacefarers to see in the New Year from beyond the veil of Earth. Back in 1973-74, the astronauts of the final Skylab mission—Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue—were six weeks into their 84-day voyage when they endured, rather than enjoyed, the passage of one year into the next. The first part of their flight had left them excessively overworked and exhausted, and on 28 December Carr had been obliged to engage in a heart-to-heart with Mission Control. Two days later, it was agreed that routine chores would be placed on a so-called “shopping list,” to be completed when time permitted, and the crew were to be left unhassled during meal times and undisturbed after dinner in the evening. At around the same time, on the 29th, Carr and Gibson performed an EVA to collect micrometeoroid samples and photograph Comet Kohoutek, which was visible in Earth’s skies during that winter.

The crew of America's final Skylab mission - from left, Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson and Bill Pogue - were the first humans to spend New Year in space in 1973-74. Photo Credit: NASA

The crew of America’s final Skylab mission—from left, Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue—were the first humans to spend New Year in space in 1973-74. Photo Credit: NASA

Unfortunately, Kohoutek did not live up to its media billing as the “Comet of the Century,” but the spacewalkers were impressed, nonetheless. “We observed a gorgeous thing,” recalled Carr in a NASA oral history, “small, faint, but gorgeous.” Today, a handful of pencil sketches by Gibson are enshrined in the Smithsonian. On the ground, the excitement was not so intense among the general public. Journalists started calling Kohoutek the “Flop of the Century,” ignoring the scientific yield and focusing only on its brightness as a marker of significance, but in reality the fault lay fairly and squarely upon their shoulders; for it was the media which treated Kohoutek as a sure thing, a dead cert, right from the outset. In March 1974, Sky & Telescope glumly told its readers that, whilst professional astronomers were jubilant with their observations, “the general public wondered what had happened to the spectacle promised by the news media”.

Over the years, several Soviet and Russian crews spent New Year in orbit. Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko celebrated the dawn of 1978 aboard the Salyut 6 space station, as did Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov from the Mir outpost in 1988. From then onward, every New Year until 1999 would see at least two humans in orbit on Mir and, with no one aloft at the start of 2000, a resumption of activity from 2001 to the present day aboard the ISS:

  •  Aleksandr Volkov, Sergei Krikalev, and Valeri Polyakov at New Year 1989
  • Aleksandr Viktorenko and Aleksandr Serebrov at New Year 1990
  • Viktor Afanasyev and Musa Manarov at New Year 1991
  • Aleksandr Volkov and Sergei Krikalev at New Year 1992
  • Anatoli Solovyov and Sergei Avdeyev at New Year 1993
  • Vasili Tsibliyev and Aleksandr Serebrov at New Year 1994
  • Aleksandr Viktorenko, Yelena Kondakova, and Valeri Polyakov at New Year 1995
  • Yuri Gidzenko, Sergei Avdeyev, and Germany’s Thomas Reiter at New Year 1996
  • Valeri Korzun, Aleksandr Kaleri, and NASA’s John Blaha at New Year 1997
  • Anatoli Solovyov, Pavel Vinogradov, and NASA’s Dave Wolf at New Year 1998
  • Gennadi Padalka and Sergei Avdeyev at New Year 1999

Of these times, little detail has emerged about how the transition from one year to the next was celebrated, although the dawn of 1998 was marked by a failure of Mir’s motion control system computer. During the recovery process, the entire station—save the base block and the Kvant-1 astrophysics module—was powered down as a conservation measure.

With the departure of Mir’s penultimate crew in August 1999, the station was left unoccupied for the transition into 2000 and it was Bill Shepherd’s Expedition 1 team who celebrated the next New Year, high above Earth. Since then, each 1 January has seen at least two spacefarers circling the Home Planet. Expedition 4 crewmen Yuri Onufrienko, Carl Walz, and Dan Bursch enjoyed a serene New Year in 2002, relaxing and communicating with family and friends, whilst Expedition 6’s Ken Bowersox, Nikolai Budarin, and Don Pettit saw the dawn of 2003 during their official sleep shift. “The first day of the New Year,” noted a NASA press release, “involved only a few routine maintenance tasks, exercise, and time off for the crew.” Exactly a month later, Columbia was lost during re-entry and NASA was thrust into one of the worst crises in its half-century of existence. Although the ISS would continue to be occupied, thanks to the assured crew return capability offered by Russia’s Soyuz craft, the outpost would host only a skeleton staff of two men, each remaining aboard for rotating six-month tours.

New Year’s Day 2004 began with new hope for the future expansion of the ISS, as Expedition 8 Commander Mike Foale delivered a “Status of the Station” message, looking ahead to future activities and more distant space exploration. After some quiet celebratory and reflective time, Foale and crewmate Aleksandr Kaleri returned to a full plate of work: the former participating in ongoing research with cell-culture growth studies in a bioreactor and the latter tending to intermittent problems with Elektron oxygen generators. Twelve months later, Expedition 10’s Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov looked earnestly for Earthly fireworks from their orbital perch, then rang in the New Year in response to Mission Control’s special rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” before plunging into a hectic program of biomedical and neurovestibular experiments.

By the start of 2006, with Expedition 12 crewmen Bill McArthur and Valeri Tokarev, the shuttle had returned to flight operations, with an anticipated resumption of construction work expected that same year. And resume it did, for January 2007 saw Expedition 14 increased to a full strength of three members—with Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria joined by Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and NASA’s Suni Williams, the first American woman to celebrate a New Year in space—and physically expanded with new solar arrays and trusses. Although the first week was spent unpacking supplies and installing an oxygen generation system activation kit in the station’s Destiny laboratory, the crew enjoyed the year. In one of her journals, Williams wrote that the close proximity between New Year’s Day and Russian Orthodox Christmas on 7 January created an excuse for much merriment. “Not sure if you all knew this,” she explained, “but the New Year is really a big holiday in Russia and then comes Christmas … as per the Russian Orthodox Church Calendar. We are going to watch a classic Russian New Year’s movie this evening, called Irony of Fate.” This movie, first released in 1975, mixes screwball comedy with a love story and is traditionally broadcast throughout Russia and many of the former Soviet states every New Year’s Day.

Suni Williams became the first American woman to spend both Christmas and New Year away from Earth in 2006-07. Photo Credit: NASA

Suni Williams became the first American woman to spend both Christmas and New Year away from Earth in 2006-07. Photo Credit: NASA

Another woman was aboard the ISS for the following 1 January in 2008, as Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of the station. Alongside Expedition 16 crewmates Yuri Malenchenko and Dan Tani, she had recently welcomed the new Harmony node and the trio spent much of the day off-duty. Having said this, Whitson and Tani began the New Year with daily readings of sleep experiment data and Malenchenko worked on the environmental control system in the Russian Segment. A year later, in January 2009, another American woman, Sandy Magnus, was aboard the station, with Expedition 18 comrades Mike Fincke and Yuri Lonchakov.

By New Year’s Day 2010, the events were turning in busy affairs at the International Space Station, which had reached the capability to house a full crew of up to six long-duration occupants. Soichi Noguchi’s arrival aboard Soyuz TMA-18 in December 2009 to join Expedition 22 made him the first Japanese astronaut to spend New Year in space, and Italy also added its name to the tally in December 2010, when Paolo Nespoli launched aboard Soyuz TMA-20, alongside Russian cosmonaut Dmitri Kondratiev and NASA astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman. Upon docking, they joined incumbent Expedition 26 crew members Scott Kelly, Aleksandr Kaleri—spending his third New Year in orbit, following previous holiday stints aboard the ISS and Mir—and Oleg Skripochka.

“The holidays are a time where we treasure being with our family and our friends,” said Coleman, in a pre-recorded message in the station’s Kibo module, as she floated alongside Kelly and Nespoli, “and we think about what we have and how much more we have than others do.” Nespoli added that from his vantage point, he saw just one planet and one world, with no borders, and his awareness of the enormity of mankind’s responsibility was clear. At the end of 2011, a Dutchman—Expedition 30 crew member Andre Kuipers—added his name to the list of nations whose citizens have rang in the New Year on-orbit. To commemorate the historic event, Kuipers offered his best wishes in his native language on a televised message from the station. And in December 2012, the arrival of Chris Hadfield made Canada the newest member of “the club”. New Year’s Day 2014 will see six men from Russia, the United States and Japan celebrating the passage of one year into the next. The incumbent Expedition 38 crew consists of Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky, Mike Hopkins, Mikhail Tyurin, Koichi Wakata, and Rick Mastracchio.

Andre Kuipers - the first Dutchman to celebrate the New Year in space - works in the station's Quest airlock during his six-and-a-half-month mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Andre Kuipers, who was the first Dutchman to celebrate the New Year in space, works in the station’s Quest airlock during his six-and-a-half-month mission. Photo Credit: NASA

However, few can hide the reality that being absent from family and friends at such special times of the year is difficult, even in the splendid isolation of the International Space Station, whose views of the Home Planet are electrifying in their scope and breathtaking in their beauty. “My collateral damage toll,” wrote Expedition 30’s Don Pettit in a NASA blog, “includes being on-orbit for two Thanksgivings, Christmas, New Year, birthdays, anniversaries, a science fair, school plays, recitals, and Valentine’s Day.” With his most recent mission—which ended last July after six and a half months—Pettit’s toll was steadily rising, although he acquiesced that “with our new internet capability on space station, I can at least send flowers!” He offered the tongue-in-cheek remark in his blog that the real essentials for surviving in the new “wilderness” of space “are not flint, steel and powder … but your credit card number and network login.”

Since the dawn of the Space Age, and including the six-strong Expedition 38 team, no fewer than 70 astronauts and cosmonauts have spent New Year away from their loved ones, high above Earth. Among their number are Americans and Russians, Germans and Japanese, Italians and Dutchmen, and Canadians. Nine people, including a single American, Don Pettit, have spent two New Years aloft, and a trio of intrepid Russians—Sergei Avdeyev, Sergei Krikalev, and Aleksandr Kaleri—have watched through station windows for Earthbound fireworks on no fewer than three occasions.

Yet there have been other occasions on which missions almost took place over the holiday period. At no stage in its three decades of operational service did a space shuttle ever bridge the gulf between the end of one year and the dawn of the next, but in June 2006 NASA began to take steps to at least make it technically possible to do so. Historically, the overarching concern was that the orbiter’s 1970s-era General Purpose Computers—both primary and critical backup suites—would need to be reset during the so-called Year-End Rollover (YERO) and this could introduce avionics glitches, a temporary loss of controllability, an absence of navigational updates, and no payload support. More fundamentally, overtime costs associated with personnel running shuttle operations over the New Year transition were predicted to run into the millions of dollars.

To date, Don Pettit is the only American astronaut to have spent two New Years off the planet. Photo Credit: NASA

To date, Don Pettit is the only American astronaut to have spent two New Years off the planet. Photo Credit: NASA

One of the first missions significantly affected by the limitations of YERO was STS-116, originally scheduled for a mid-December 2006 launch, whose “window” to reach the International Space Station had already been shortened by a so-called “beta-angle cutout,” caused by thermal constraints related to the plane of the outpost’s orbit with the Sun. It was determined at the time that if a YERO work-around was not possible, STS-116 (baselined as a 12-day flight) would be restricted to a short, three-day launch window from 14-16 December. Bearing in mind the need for two additional contingency days, to support weather wave-offs, this would produce a landing well in advance of New Year’s Eve. If none of the mid-December launch dates could be met, the beta-angle issue would have forced a delay until at least the middle of January 2007.

Evaluations in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) offered some scope to understand how the orbiter’s computers might respond to a YERO event, however, and initial troubleshooting of the main difficulties was completed by the end of October 2006. The STS-116 launch window was extended slightly from 7-17 December, but NASA managers remained unprepared to impose additional risk on an already complex mission. As circumstances transpired, Discovery roared into orbit on 9 December and returned safely to Earth after 13 days, well before Christmas and the New Year. Still, in February 2007, a flight software modification to provide a “YERO Reset” to GMT Day 001 and a recycling of ground systems was approved by NASA and the issue was declared closed. YERO briefly reared its head again in late 2007, when delays to the STS-122 launch made a New Year mission a possibility, but the mission eventually flew in February 2008. None of the year-end missions in the twilight of Shuttle operations—STS-126 in November 2008, STS-129 in November 2009, and STS-133, originally scheduled for November 2010, but postponed until early in the following spring—came into conflict with YERO.

Now, more than two years after the final Shuttle flight, the combined crew of Expedition 38—Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryazansky and Mikhail Tyurin—will have ample opportunity over the New Year period to reflect upon their time in the most extraordinary environment ever explored by humans. There will be time to look out for fireworks around the world, during their “Fifteen Midnights,” and there will also be time to speak privately to their families.

And therein lies the greatest difficulty. Last New Year, U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford was in command of the ISS. “Probably the biggest thing is asking forgiveness from our families,” he said in a pre-flight interview, “but they know how special it is, how long we’ve waited to do this kind of thing, and they’ll forgive us this one time around. When New Year rolls around, I’m going to do my best to be well rested and try to see some fireworks as we pass through those midnight time zones around the planet and see if we can pick up any of that from space.”

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3 comments to ‘Fifteen Midnights': Celebrating the New Year in Space

  • Mike Richardson


    I very much enjoy your detailed and well-written stories about spaceflight, which almost invariably contain information and insights that are new to me.

    In your story ‘”Fifteen midnights”: celebrating the New Year in space’, however, although you’re absolutely right in describing 1 January 2001 as the first day of the twenty-first century, you’re in error when you call 2001 the ‘second year of a new decade’. Popular culture may equate ‘the 2000s’, ‘the 1990s’, etc. with calendar decades, but this is not in fact correct. Calendar decades align with the century, as you would expect, and so you have the first decade of the twenty-first century (2001 to 2010), the second decade (2011 to 2020), etc.

    ‘The 2000s’ may be a decade (any period of ten years is; 13 May 2004 to 12 May 2014 is, for example) but it is not a calendar decade. I strongly suspect that the widespread use of terms such as ‘the 2000s’, ‘the 1990s’, etc. as if they refer to calendar decades goes a long way to explaining why so many people could not understand why 2001, not 2000, was the first year of this century.

    Mike Richardson

  • An interesting side notebis that technically, had we landed in the Moon by December 31, 1970, we would have achieved Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon “before this decade is out.” It was a “psychological thing” to reference 1969.

  • After his flight in 1989, Krikalev paid a visit to the Mars Area high school in Mars, Pennsylvania (not far from Pittsburgh) in 1990 or 1991. This was quite an event at the school, especially because of the association with the Red Planet.