Last night, six pairs of eyes were glued to the windows of the International Space Station (ISS), straining to catch a first glimpse of fireworks around the world, as humanity bade farewell to 2016 and ushered in 2017. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and his crewmates—Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Oleg Novitsky, together with U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson and the first French national to celebrate the New Year in space, Thomas Pesquet—observed the transition in quiet fashion. For 17 consecutive years, men and women from the United States and Russia, Japan and Italy, the Netherlands and Canada, the United Kingdom, and now France have witnessed the turnover from 31 December to 1 January through the ISS windows.
It is a far cry from the beginning of 2004, a year since the tragic loss of Columbia, when construction of the multi-national station had stalled and only a two-man caretaker crew was aboard to keep its systems operational. Yet New Year’s Day 2004 began with new hope for the future expansion of the ISS, as Expedition 8 Commander Mike Foale—British-born, like Tim Peake, yet also holding U.S. nationality and flying in the capacity of a NASA astronaut—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 his Russian 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 aboard the space station, 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 lab, the crew enjoyed the New 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.
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 Orbital Segment (ROS). 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, since the ISS 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, whilst 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 Japanese-built Kibo lab, 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’s 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 saw six men from Russia, the United States, and Japan celebrating the year-end rollover, whilst 1 January 2015 saw two women in space at the same time. Russia’s Yelena Serova and Italy’s first female spacefarer, Samantha Cristoforetti, were midway through their respective six-month stays aboard the multi-national outpost.
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 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 on 1 July 2012 after 6.5 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 50 crew, currently aboard the ISS, no fewer than 84 astronauts and cosmonauts have (or will have) spent New Year away from their loved ones, high above Earth. Among their number are Americans and Russians, as well as a German, two Japanese, two Italians, one Dutchmen, a single Canadian, and a lone Briton. Sixteen people, including two Americans—Don Pettit and Scott Kelly—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. Aboard Expedition 50, Peggy Whitson becomes the first woman to have logged two New Years in space.
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 member of America’s space shuttle fleet 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 (GPCs)—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.
One of the first missions significantly impaired by the limitations of YERO was STS-116, originally scheduled for a mid-December 2006 launch, whose “window” to reach the ISS had already been shortened by a so-called “beta-angle cutout,” caused by thermal constraints related to the plane of the space station’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 an exceptionally 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, however, 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, 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, shuttle 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 any of the YERO concerns.
Now, more than five years after the final shuttle flight, the combined crew of Expedition 50 will have had ample opportunity over the New Year period to reflect upon their time in the most extraordinary environment ever explored by humans. There was time to look out for fireworks around the world, during their “Fifteen Midnights,” and there was time to speak privately to their families.
And therein lies the greatest difficulty. Four New Years ago, U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford was at the helm of the station, commanding Expedition 34. “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.”
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 20th anniversary of STS-81, which docked and exchanged crew members aboard the Russian Mir space station in January 1997.