'All of You on the Good Earth': Celebrating Christmas Away from the Home Planet (Part 1)

With a fire unavailable, the Christmas stockings of consecutive International Space Station (ISS) crews have been hung by the hatch. With care, of course. Photo Credit: NASA

With a fire unavailable, the Christmas stockings of consecutive International Space Station (ISS) crews have been hung by the hatch—with care, of course. Photo Credit: NASA

For the first time, a woman will record as many as two Christmases spent away from the Home Planet tomorrow (Sunday), whilst orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson—who is presently a few weeks into a six-month increment which will also see her become the first female spacefarer to command the ISS twice—will be joined by only the second French national to celebrate the holidays in low-Earth orbit, as well as three Russian crewmates and Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough. Tomorrow’s festivities will mark the 17th continuous year that Christmas has been observed aboard the ISS, although the traditional date of Jesus’ birth has been celebrated many times in space over almost a half-century.

In fact, Whitson and her Expedition 50 crewmate Oleg Novitsky of Russia will join 18 other astronauts and cosmonauts—including veteran NASA flyers Mike Foale and Don Pettit—to have seen Christmas twice from on-orbit. For Kimbrough, Pesquet and fellow Expedition 50 crew members Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, it will be their first Yuletide in space. Only four humans have totaled three Christmases in space across their respective careers: Russian cosmonauts Sergei Avdeyev, Sergei Krikalev, and Aleksandr Kaleri, and America’s first one-year astronaut, Scott Kelly.

The astronauts and cosmonauts of the station continued a long tradition of humans having spent the festive season in orbit. Beginning with the epic lunar voyage of Apollo 8 in December 1968, the holidays have been commemorated in fine style over the years. Since 1999, every Christmas has seen at least one U.S. citizen in space. America’s finest have spacewalked outside the Skylab space station and on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), have welcomed unpiloted Progress visiting vehicles to Russia’s Mir complex, and have celebrated among multi-national crews aboard the ISS. In total, representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union and Russia, Germany, France, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom have spent 25 December “off the planet.” In 2014, during Expedition 42, two women—Russia’s Yelena Serova and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti—celebrated Yuletide together in space, for the first time.

In a view never seen by human eyes before Christmas Eve 1968, the distant Earth rises above the lunar limb. Photo Credit: NASA

In a view never seen by human eyes before Christmas Eve 1968, the distant Earth rises above the lunar limb. Photo Credit: NASA

It all began in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1968, when Apollo 8 and its crew of Commander Frank Borman, Senior Pilot Jim Lovell, and Pilot Bill Anders slipped into orbit around the Moon for the first time in human history. Over the coming hours, they relayed to an awe-struck Planet Earth a very different celestial body from that previously seen as a glimmering lamp in the night sky: for the astronauts saw a gray and forbidding place, battered by millions of years of savage bombardment, which looked to Anders like a sandpit beaten up by his kids. By mid-morning on the 24th, they were established in a circular orbit and beheld the electrifying event of “Earthrise” for the first time, as their home world peeked above the lunar horizon. Few other images from the Space Age have so enthraled us than the “Earthrise Picture,” which encapsulated the beauty, fragility, and loneliness of our planet in the vastness of the Universe. The astronauts won deserved praise for their assertion that, whilst Apollo 8’s goal was to visit the Moon, it actually served to discover the Earth.

The symbolism of men being away from the planet of their species’ origin for the first time and doing so over the most important holiday in the Christian calendar could not be overlooked. Before launch, Borman, Lovell, and Anders arranged to read the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis to a listening world. It was a reading which prompted both profound thanks and bitter criticism—notably from the celebrated atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair—but whatever one’s religious faith, the sound of Frank Borman wishing the Home Planet “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you on the good Earth” carried a message which conveyed the spirit of the season.

Five years later, in December 1973, Americans and Russians spent Christmas—at least, Christmas according to the newer Gregorian Calendar—in orbit, with astronauts Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue aboard Skylab and Soviet cosmonauts Pyotr Klimuk and Valentin Lebedev flying a solo mission on Soyuz 13. Russian Orthodox Christmas, of course, occurs on 7 January, under the traditional framework of the older Julian Calendar, but within the Soviet Union its observance was officially suppressed by the Communist authorities and little has come to light over whether Klimuk or Lebedev made any reference to the Gregorian festivities. Nor was it possible for the Skylab and Soyuz crews to speak via radio during their respective missions.

Aboard Skylab, the three astronauts were six weeks into a record-breaking 84-day flight and had crafted a makeshift Christmas tree from packing material, food containers, and crude ornaments. They even made a small, long-tailed star from silver foil and put in pride of place atop the tree, to honor Comet Kohoutek, which made an appearance in Earth’s skies during late 1973 and early 1974. On Christmas Day itself, Carr and Pogue performed a spacewalk outside Skylab, one of whose objectives was to photograph Kohoutek. In his interview for the NASA oral historian, Pogue remembered floating in the station’s airlock, surrounded by his cameras, two large film magazines for the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM), and other tools. “Gerry went hand-over-hand to the end of the solar observatory,” Pogue related, “while I got the replacement film magazines ready. I operated an extendable boom to transfer the first film canister to Gerry; he removed it and loaded the exposed canister to the boom; I retracted the boom while Gerry loaded the fresh canister to replace the one he had just removed and when he gave me the okay, I sent the second canister out. We repeated the procedure and were finished in record time.”

Then came the photography of the comet itself. Pogue carefully set up his camera, mounting it onto a strut and positioning it such that one of Skylab’s ATM solar arrays just barely blocked the Sun. He could not physically see the comet, but Mission Control had earlier sent him a diagram on the station’s teleprinter. “The instructions were clear and it was a fairly easy job,” he recalled. “I turned on the camera and I was finished.” The child in Pogue suddenly took over. “I decided to make the most of it. I crawled all over the accessible parts of Skylab. It reminded me of when I was a kid, doing a mud-crawl in a four-foot-deep stock tank used for watering cows and horses.” His adventure ended at the solar “end” of the ATM, offering him a stunning and unobstructed view of Earth; it felt like Pogue was doing a swan-like dive through space. When the two men returned inside the airlock, they were advised that they had set a new world record for the longest spacewalk to date, at six hours and 54 minutes.

Over the next two decades, several cosmonaut crews were in orbit for both the Gregorian and Julian Christmases, beginning with Soyuz 26, crewed by Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko. They launched from Baikonur on 10 December 1977 and returned to Earth in mid-March of the following year, surpassing the record of Carr’s crew by spending 96 days in orbit. And 10 years after that, in December 1987, Yuri Romanenko became the first person to spend two Christmases (Gregorian, at least) in orbit, as he closed out a 326-day voyage aboard Mir. Joining him were fellow cosmonauts Aleksandr Aleksandrov, Anatoli Levchenko, Vladimir Titov, and Musa Manarov. In fact, from Christmas 1987 onwards, at least one human being would be off the planet during each festive period.

The makeshift Christmas tree built by Carr, Gibson and Pogue from old food containers and packaging also included a long-tailed star at its tip: Comet Kohoutek. Photo Credit: NASA

The makeshift Christmas tree built by Carr, Gibson and Pogue from old food containers and packaging also included a long-tailed star at its tip: Comet Kohoutek. Photo Credit: NASA

At the end of 1988, Titov and Manarov departed Mir just four days before the Gregorian Christmas—completing a record-setting 366-day mission—and left Soyuz TM-7 cosmonauts Aleksandr Volkov, Sergei Krikalev, and Valeri Polyakov in orbit over the Christmas period. These three men returned to Earth in April 1989, leaving Mir unoccupied for several months, until the Soyuz TM-8 crew of Aleksandr Viktorenko and Aleksandr Serebrov arrived in September. They spent Christmas 1989 in orbit, followed by numerous other Russians, as well as two Americans and a German, over the course of the next decade.

During this decade of festive periods in space, Manarov became the first person to spend two Julian and Gregorian Christmases aloft, whilst Russia’s Yelena Kondakova became the first woman to spend the holiday off the planet in December 1994 and Germany’s Thomas Reiter became the first non-Russian and non-U.S. citizen to do so in December 1995. From the middle of the 1990s, with the beginning of the shuttle-Mir program, the opportunities for Americans opened and in December 1996 veteran shuttle commander John Blaha became the first U.S. astronaut since Skylab to celebrate Christmas in space.

In one of his Letters Home, dated 13 December, Blaha described one of the harbingers of the holidays, as an unmanned Progress supply craft, carrying much-needed food, equipment, and gifts and cards from home, approached Mir for docking. “I was in the Kvant-2 module, looking through one of the small windows,” Blaha wrote. “I finally saw the Progress. It was a shining star, rising towards us at great speed from beneath the horizon. All of a sudden, the light from the Progress extinguished as we passed into the shade of the Earth. Five seconds later, four lights on the Progress were turned on. I watched the remainder of the rendezvous through a tiny window in the aft end of the Kvant module.” For Blaha and his Russian crewmates, Valeri Korzun and Aleksandr Kaleri, opening the Progress “was like Christmas and your birthday, all rolled together, when you are five years old.” They found themselves reading mail, laughing, opening presents and eating fresh tomatoes and cheese. “It was an experience I will always remember,” Blaha once said.

Christmas 1996 was memorable, as noted in a space-to-ground interview on 20 December. In the interview, Korzun surprised Blaha by referring to “an outstanding menu” of both Russian and American foods, including lamb, pork, “a wonderful dessert,” and even Italian cheeses. “In six days,” Blaha said with pleasant surprise, “we’re going to have quite a feast. This is the first time I’ve heard about that.” A year later, in December 1997, fellow astronaut Dave Wolf joined Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Pavel Vinogradov aboard Mir. A Progress craft brought gifts, a small Christmas tree for the space station, and a package of traditional candy from Moscow’s Red October factory.

The year about which Prince sang—1999—saw no Russians in orbit aboard Mir, for the station had been de-crewed in late August. However, Christmas 1999 was celebrated in space, by the very first and only U.S. shuttle crew to do so. NASA had expected astronauts to spend the festive season aloft on several occasions, including Mission 61C in December 1985, which was repeatedly postponed due to technical troubles and ultimately did not fly until early January 1986, only days ahead of the Challenger disaster. Then, in December 1989, the STS-32 crew anticipated a Christmas mission to retrieve the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF). Their anticipation was so great, in fact, that they even had a spoof crew portrait taken, featuring them in Santa suits, hats, and dark glasses. Sadly, problems getting Pad 39A ready for its first post-Challenger use shifted STS-32 into January 1990 and the Santa gag fell flat.

The STS-103 astronauts were the only Space Shuttle crew to celebrate Christmas in orbit, way back in 1999. Photo Credit: NASA

The STS-103 astronauts were the only Space Shuttle crew to celebrate Christmas in orbit, way back in 1999. Photo Credit: NASA

But on 19 December 1999, Discovery thundered into darkened Florida skies to begin the STS-103 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Aboard the orbiter was a multi-national crew: Americans Curt Brown, John Grunsfeld, Steve Smith, and future ISS skipper Scott Kelly were joined by British-born Mike Foale, Frenchman Jean-Francois Clervoy, and Switzerland’s Claude Nicollier to support three complex EVAs to extend the upgrade the telescope’s capabilities. Those EVAs were performed ahead of Christmas, with the final eight-hour spacewalk by Smith and Grunsfeld concluded at 10:25 p.m. EST on Christmas Eve (3:25 a.m. GMT on Christmas morning).

After a sleep period, the seven astronauts were awakened on Christmas Day by Bing Crosby’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas. “Merry Christmas to y’all, down there,” Curt Brown radioed to Mission Control, “and Hubble will be home for Christmas, because today we’re going to set her free.” The STS-103 crew made good on their promise, with Clervoy deploying the giant observatory into orbit late on Christmas afternoon. HST Program Manager John Campbell paid tribute to the first shuttle crew ever to spend Christmas in orbit. “We especially thank the families of the entire STS-103 team,” he said, “who made so many personal sacrifices at this holiday season, enabling the Hubble Space Telescope to resume its voyage of discovery.”

The crew offered its own tribute, too. “The familiar Christmas story,” Curt Brown said, “reminds us that for millennia people of many faiths and cultures have looked to the skies and studied the stars and planets in their search for a deeper understanding of life and for greater wisdom. We hope and trust that the lessons the Universe has to teach us will speak to the yearning that we know is in human hearts everywhere—the yearning for peace on Earth, goodwill among all the human family. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium, we send you all our greetings.”

With Discovery’s landing on 27 December 1999, the 20th century of human space exploration officially came to a close. U.S. astronauts, Soviet and Russian cosmonauts, and representatives of Germany, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom had seen the Home Planet from orbit on the traditional date of Christ’s birth. No human being would be off the planet to witness the birth of the year 2000, but as tomorrow’s article will reveal, Americans and Russians—and a handful of other nationalities, too—have routinely occupied the International Space Station (ISS) on every Christmas since.

 

The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

 

 

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