As millions of Americans tuck into their Thanksgiving meals today (Thursday, 27 November), spare a thought for Expedition 42 astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts, the United States’ two current representatives aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 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 the entire Expedition 42 team—which also includes Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov, together with Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti—will undoubtedly participate in a joint orbital meal.
The holiday comes only days after Shkaplerov, Cristoforetti, and Virts launched at 3:01:14 a.m. local time Monday, 24 November (4:01:14 p.m. EST Sunday, 23 November), from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and docked their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module about six hours later. At the point of the new crew’s arrival, Wilmore, Samokutyayev, and Serova were entering their 60th day in orbit, having been launched aboard Soyuz TMA-14M back on 25 September.
Speaking a day or so earlier, from inside Japan’s cavernous Kibo laboratory, Wilmore—who serves as Commander of Expedition 42—took a few minutes to offer Thanksgiving wishes to his family and friends back on Earth. “For me and my family, the first thing we think of when we think of Thanksgiving is going all the way back to those early settlers,” he reflected, “when they endured some really rough times, crossing the ocean and getting started in an unknown land. They paused and thanked God for what He had provided for them up to that point and that’s kinda the genesis of the holiday that we share today.”
As he described his own personal reasons for being thankful, the list was topped for Wilmore by the notion of freedom itself. He paid specific tribute to the armed forces, who “day in and day out” work to make a difference, all over the world. “They know there’s a chance that they may not return,” he said, “and they go anyway.” He also thanked the support teams on the ground, who were processing the scientific data from Expedition 42 and keeping himself and his crew safe in orbit. Reflecting upon his own Thanksgiving traditions, Wilmore added that his family members typically goes around the dinner table to express personal things for which they are each thankful. He introduced a few packets of the foodstuffs that he and his crew will enjoy on the day itself, including smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, and cranberry pie. Hailing from Murfreesboro, Tenn., Wilmore pointed to the fact that he had grown up drinking sweet teas, which were also aboard, as were the traditional Southern breakfast items of grits and butter. Closing the address, he expressed thanks for “the opportunity to just float, effortlessly” and proudly demonstrated “my bat imitation,” flipping his body in such a fashion that he “hung” from Kibo’s “ceiling,” like a bat.
With the ISS having been continuously occupied since 2 November 2000, spending the holidays in space is now a routine affair for NASA astronauts. Last year, Expedition 38’s Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio shared their good wishes and described the space station as “the next best place” to spend Thanksgiving, if they could not be with their families, adding that their multi-national crew was like a family unit in its own right and they enjoyed many meals together. The two men reminisced about past holidays spent on Earth—with Mastracchio reflecting on his personal tradition of celebrating with a big meal and Hopkins noting that he traveled all over the Unites States to visit family members—before breaking out samples of their foodstuffs: turkey, green bean casserole, dehydrated asparagus, baked beans, potatoes, bread, and a selection of beverages and desserts.
A year earlier, in November 2012, Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford had been the sole U.S. citizen in orbit over Thanksgiving and he also shared his personal thoughts with his terrestrial audience. “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 year round, from our international flight control teams,” he began, then dipped into his sack of Thanksgiving goodies, which featured smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, a cranberry-peach drink, a cherry-peach cobbler dessert, potato au gratin, and several Russian specialties, including mashed potato and onion purée and apple pudding. He explained with some pleasure that his predecessor, Expedition 33 Commander Suni Williams, had kindly left behind a packed of marshmallow cream for Ford and his Russian crewmates, Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeni Tarelkin, to enjoy.
Despite the spectacular views of Earth, and the magical experience of microgravity, the profound sense of separation from loved ones posed its own difficulties. “The one good thing is we’re able to talk to our family on a pretty regular basis,” explained Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank in November 2011, “and we can also see them, and do a video conference with them on Sundays, but it’s still not the same as being there for the holidays with them.” He shared with his viewers several samples of his Thanksgiving food, which included smoked turkey, home-style potatoes, cornbread dressing, green beans and vegetables—“just like the Pilgrims”—and cranberries. However, Burbank’s particular favorite was the dessert. “What could be better,” he rhetorically asked, “than cherry-blueberry cobbler?”
Of course, giving thanks for one’s blessings in life was a clear message from each consecutive crew. In November 2010, Expedition 25’s Scott Kelly explained that he felt “privileged that I was born and grew up in a country that could be a major contributor to something as magnificent as the International Space Station.” A year earlier, Expedition 21 crew members Nicole Stott and Jeff Williams displayed various food packets, including turkey and trimmings, cauliflower cheese, mushroom and truffle pâté, cream spinach, fruit cocktails, spicy green beans, and tortillas, whilst over Thanksgiving in November 2008 STS-126 shuttle astronauts Don Pettit and Steve Bowen toasted the holidays, and each other, with small packets of tea. And a year before them, Expedition 16’s Dan Tani stressed that “When we think about Thanksgiving, we think about the Pilgrims coming to the New World and expanding their knowledge of their Universe and making new discoveries and looking for a better life for themselves.” His crewmate, Peggy Whitson, also explained that many of their Russian foods came canned, but added that since both she and Tani had a particular penchant for the chicken, “there’s none of that left!”
Many of the foods eaten in space are freeze-dried, requiring the addition of water, or alternatively they are thermostabilized 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 ISS 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 1973 was undertaken by astronauts Bill Pogue and Ed Gibson, who spent 6.5 hours outside Skylab, loading camera film into the station’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) 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 was a far cry from its modern counterpart, but the men described it as good, albeit bland. Condiments such as salt helped a bit, 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 U.S. astronauts again celebrate in orbit. Shuttle Atlantis’ Mission 61B crew had launched the day before Thanksgiving and several of them were still in the process of adapting to the weightless environment, leaving their stomachs in little mood for turkey and trimmings. Still, they had gotten themselves into the holiday spirit as they steeled themselves for the flight; astronaut Woody Spring had invited as many of his friends and family as possible to be at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for Atlantis’ 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 STS-33 and STS-44 Department of Defense shuttle missions in November 1989 and November 1991. For Gregory, it was nice to be able to eat with his crewmates in a civilized manner at the same time. On a previous mission, a dual-shift Spacelab flight, he described eating in orbit as little more than 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 an EVA to demonstrate ISS construction methods. Their spacewalk was canceled when the outer hatch of Columbia’s airlock failed to open, due to a loose screw lodged in an actuator. Interestingly, Story Musgrave was aboard the STS-33, STS-44 and STS-80 shuttle missions, making him the only U.S. citizen to be in space for as many as three Thanksgivings. Uniquely, at the same time, U.S. 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 first ISS Commander, Expedition 1’s Bill Shepherd—celebrate the holiday whilst in orbit … and since then every Thanksgiving has seen at least one U.S. resident aboard. Shepherd and Russian crewmates Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko were four weeks into Expedition 1 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 Commander 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-person Thanksgiving meal. Astronauts Mike Lopez-Alegria and John Herrington performed an EVA on Thanksgiving Day to outfit the station’s new P-1 truss segment. “After a challenging day of work,” recalled Expedition 5’s Peggy Whitson, “we celebrated with smoked turkey in foil pouches, rehydrated mashed potatoes and rehydrated green beans with mushrooms.” The meal closed with a dessert of blueberry-cherry cobbler on tortilla, brought 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 space station remained permanently occupied, thanks to Russia’s Soyuz, and British-born U.S. astronaut Mike Foale and Russian cosmonaut 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 Mission 61B in November 1985, 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 people, and Don Pettit and Steve Bowen took the opportunity to share an innovative technique for sharing toasts of packet tea in the weightless environment. A year later, in November 2009, the astronauts of STS-129—which included Barry “Butch” Wilmore—became the last shuttle crew ever to spend the holidays aloft. They had recently undocked from the 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.
To date, therefore, the record for the most number of Thanksgiving holidays spent in space by a U.S. astronaut has been three, achieved by Story Musgrave on STS-33, STS-44 and STS-80. Five others—Fred Gregory, John Blaha, Peggy Whitson, Don Pettit, and now Butch Wilmore—have each celebrated two Thanksgivings off the planet. And with the extension of station operations until at least 2024, 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 on 26 November 2015 will see Expedition 46’s Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra aboard the station, although without doubt their Russian crewmates Mikhail Kornienko, Sergei Volkov, and Yuri Malenchenko, together with British astronaut Tim Peake, will also partake in the festivities.