Ding-Dong Merrily On-Orbit: Celebrating Yuletide in Space (Part 1)

Truly the voyage of Apollo 8 over the Christmas period in 1968 carried with it the most profound message of the Greatest Story Ever Told: a message of peace, goodwill and harmony to the inhabitants of Planet Earth. Photo Credit: NASA

For the first time in history, two women will celebrate Christmas on Thursday, whilst orbiting high above Earth, aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Russian cosmonaut Yelena Serova and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti are currently joined by U.S. crewmates Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts and Russia’s Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Anton Shkaplerov aboard the orbital outpost for Expedition 42. And over the coming hours and days, they will continue a long tradition of astronauts and cosmonauts celebrating the festive period in space. Beginning with the epic lunar voyage of Apollo 8 in December 1968, the holidays have been commemorated in fine style over the years … and since 1999 every Christmas has seen at least one U.S. astronaut in orbit. America’s finest have spacewalked outside Skylab and on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) over Christmas, have welcomed Progress visitors to Russia’s Mir space station, and have celebrated amidst multi-national crews aboard the ISS.

It all began in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1968, when Apollo 8 and its crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and 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 grey and forbidding place, battered by millions of years of meteorite and other 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 enthralled 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 the listening world. It was a reading which prompted both profound thanks and bitter criticism, notably from atheists such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but whatever one’s conviction 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.

Crafted from cans and food containers, the Skylab 4 crew’s makeshift Christmas tree served as a crutch against the isolation of a long-duration stay in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Five years later, 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 cosmonauts Pyotr Klimuk and Valentin Lebedev flying a solo mission on Soyuz 13. Russian Orthodox Christmas, of course, occurs on 7 January, under the traditions 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 the arrival of 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.

The Skylab 4 crew (from left, Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue) were the second team of Americans to spend Christmas off the planet. For them, the day was spent supporting an EVA, one of whose aims was to observe and photograph Comet Kohoutek—their own “Star of Wonder.” Photo Credit: NASA

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 no less than 96 days in orbit. Less than a week after Russian Orthodox Christmas, they welcomed their first human visitors, the Soyuz 27 team of Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Oleg Makarov. 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 entered the homestretch of his 326-day voyage aboard the Mir space station. (He had previously served aboard the Salyut 6 station over Christmas in 1977.) Joining him were fellow cosmonauts Aleksandr Aleksandrov, Anatoli Levchenko, Vladimir Titov, and Musa Manarov. From Christmas 1987 onwards, at least one human being would be off the planet during each festive period. Therefore, this year’s holiday marks a quarter-century of continuous Christmases enjoyed in space.

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:

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

During this decade of festive periods in space, Musa Manarov—a Muslim by religious conviction—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 German astronaut 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.

Dave Wolf (center) was the second and last American astronaut to celebrate Christmas aboard Russia’s Mir space station in 1997. He spent the festive period alongside cosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov (right) and Pavel Vinogradov. Photo Credit: NASA

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 doubtless 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, 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, Valeri Korzun surprised Blaha by referring to “an outstanding menu” of both Russian and American food products, 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 and only a two-month visit by a pair of cosmonauts in mid-2000 lay ahead before the end of the station’s life. 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.

Displaying their Santa hats with pride as they celebrate a successful holiday period servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, the astronauts of STS-103 were the first—and only—shuttle crew to spend Christmas in space. 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. Aboard the orbiter was a multi-national crew: Americans Curt Brown, John Grunsfeld, Steve Smith, and 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 redeploying the giant observatory into orbit late on Christmas afternoon. Hubble 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.”

Curt Brown’s crew offered its own tribute, too. “The familiar Christmas story,” 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 on every Christmas since.


Tomorrow’s article will focus on Christmas aboard the International Space Station, from the celebrations of Expedition 1 in 2000 to the present day.


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