Ding-Dong Merrily On-Orbit: Celebrating Yuletide in Space (Part 2)

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

As we celebrate the festive period over the coming days, spare a thought for the four men and two women from three discrete nations who are presently in orbit, 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, aboard the International Space Station. Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and his Russian crewmates Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov, fellow U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, will spend a quiet Christmas together aboard the multi-national outpost … although “quiet” by no means implies that they will not be breaking into their food stores and opening gifts on the day itself. In fact, this year marks the 25th anniversary in which at least two human beings have been off the planet on every Christmas. Yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article explored the missions of the 20th century, which saw U.S. astronauts, Soviet and Russian cosmonauts, and representatives of Germany, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom celebrating the traditional date of Christ’s birth away from the Home Planet. Since then, from Christmas 2000 onward, Americans and Russians, Japanese and Italians, and Dutchmen and Canadians have unwrapped their yuletide presents in a seriously unearthly place.

Speaking in a recent address from the station, Wilmore and Virts shared their perspectives about spending the holiday away from the Home Planet. “Christmas for us is a time of worship,” Wilmore explained from the decorated surroundings of the Destiny laboratory. “It’s a time that we think back to the birth of what we consider our Lord. And we do that in our homes and we plan to do the same thing up here and take a little bit of time just to reflect on those topics and, also, just as the Wise Men gave gifts, we have a couple of gifts.” He gestured to the crew’s stockings, neatly hung over the hatch with care, in the hope, perhaps, that an extraterrestrial St. Nicholas soon might be there. Wilmore then passed the microphone over to Virts, who added: “It’s such an honor to be able to spend Christmas up here. This is definitely a Christmas that we’ll remember, getting a chance to see the beautiful Earth.”

Celebrating Christmas in orbit has become commonplace since the arrival of the first permanent ISS crew in the fall of 2000. For the last 15 consecutive Christmases, 27 Americans and 27 Russians have spent the holidays aboard the space station—several of them on more than one occasion—as well as two Japanese, two Italians, the first Dutchman, and the first Canadian to be away from Earth on the big day. This year, 2014, is also significant in that it marks the first year on which two women have spent Christmas in space together. Russia’s Yelena Serova is only the second of her countrywomen to do so, following on the heels of Yelena Kondakova in 1994, whilst Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti is the first Italian female in history to do so.

ISS crews, past and present, have celebrated the event in their own ways, but for all of them the sense of family and separation from loved ones has been strong. In his pre-flight NASA interview, Expedition 34 Kevin Ford spoke about his plans for Christmas, back in 2012. As a Capcom, he frequently worked in Mission Control over the holidays, talking with fellow astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the station, and he described the experience as “not too big a deal for me.” For him, it was hard asking forgiveness from his family for not being with them over the holidays—“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”—and there was plenty of opportunity for all six Expedition 34 crewmen to speak privately to their loved ones on the day itself.

With a small Christmas tree in attendance, Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford sends his season's greetings to an Earthbound audience last week. Photo Credit: NASA
With a small Christmas tree in attendance, Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford sends his season’s greetings to an Earthbound audience in December 2012. Photo Credit: NASA

It was somewhat more difficult for crewmate Tom Marshburn, whose young daughter was without her father in the flesh. “We planned for it a long time ago,” Marshburn told a NASA interviewer, “and so we’re ready for it.” He admitted before launch that thinking about her on Christmas morning, waking up and opening presents, would be “tough,” but that internet connectivity from the ISS would enable him to interact with his family and share some of their joy and the looks on their faces. “It’ll be a little bit tough for me,” Marshburn said, “as it would be for anybody, but I think the price is certainly well worth it, to be up there.”

Last Christmas, of course, was a busy one, as the ISS Program responded dynamically to a failed ammonia pump module on the station’s starboard truss and a problem with an external coolant loop. Four days before the traditional date of Christ’s birth, Expedition 38 astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins embarked on the first of two EVAs to resolve the issue. Their task was completed successfully on 24 December, when they became only the second team of U.S. spacewalkers in history to venture outside their spacecraft on Christmas Eve. A year later, at Christmas 2014, the Expedition 42 crew anticipate a quieter period of celebration and reflection. For the three Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS—Samokutyayev, Serova, and Shkaplerov—Christmas, of course, is a somewhat different affair. Under Russian Orthodoxy, which follows the older Julian Calendar, Christmas occurs 13 days later than the Gregorian Calendar and will fall on 7 January. Nonetheless, it has been a tradition on the multi-national outpost that different cultures and faiths and nationalities try to celebrate each other’s festive periods and special events.

The coming days will mark the 15th continuous Christmas to have been enjoyed aboard the station. The first crew to put up decorations were the Expedition 1 team—Commander Bill Shepherd of NASA and Russian crewmates Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko—who arrived in early November 2000 and were thus only eight weeks into their five-month mission. For them, Christmas was a busy time, since an unmanned Progress supply craft had been undocked some weeks earlier and inserted into a close “parking orbit” to enable Russian flight controllers to correct a software glitch with its automatic rendezvous system. On 26 December, Gidzenko took manual control to guide the Progress in to a smooth docking at the rear port of the station’s Zvezda service module. Despite the work, the three men managed to enjoy a quiet Christmas, opening presents, talking to their families, eating rehydrated turkey, and even receiving Christmas greetings from NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.

A year later, the station had grown significantly, with the addition of the United States’ Destiny laboratory, the Quest airlock, and the Canadarm2 robotic manipulator. Christmas 2001 was observed by Expedition 4 crewmen Yuri Onufrienko, Carl Walz, and Dan Bursch with a day off and an opportunity to break into the pantry to sample turkey and other traditional holiday foods. The following Christmas came just five weeks before the Columbia tragedy, and the Expedition 6 team of Ken Bowersox, Nikolai Budarin, and Don Pettit also enjoyed a day with only minor duties. Whilst they were required to check the station’s environmental control system and the status of several Destiny payloads, each crewman opened presents, “selected favourite dishes for their holiday dinner,” and spent 15 minutes privately talking with family members. They also spoke to NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. Shortly afterwards, one of the worst years in the space agency’s history unfolded, but the ISS remained occupied, thanks to the assured crew return capability offered by Russia’s Soyuz. Christmas 2003 was a shadow of what it should have been—construction having ground to a halt for all intents and purposes. Nevertheless, Expedition 8’s skeleton staff of Mike Foale and Aleksandr Kaleri displayed not one Christmas tree, but two: a small artificial one and another embroidered on a blanket.

Christmas 2004 was celebrated by Expedition 10 crewmen Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov, who actually received a scheduled visitor that evening, in the form of a Progress resupply craft. In addition to its normal quota of food, propellant, oxygen, water, and experiment hardware, the Progress carried holiday gifts for the crew. A year later, with the first post-Columbia Shuttle mission having flown, but the fleet grounded again, Expedition 12’s Bill McArthur and Valeri Tokarev spent a quiet day dining on packaged Russian foodstuffs, including soup and bread, fish and meat dishes, vegetables, and pastries. Poignantly, Tokarev paid tribute over the space-to-ground link to fellow cosmonaut Gennadi Strekalov, who had died a year earlier on the previous Christmas Day.

Expedition 18 astronauts Mike Fincke and Sandy Magnus display specially iced cookies for the Christmas holidays in 2008. Photo Credit: NASA

By the time the festive season rolled around in 2006, construction of the station had been driven back into high gear and long-duration crews had returned to their original three-strong capacity. Aboard the ISS were Expedition 14 Commander Mike Lopez-Alegria, his Russian crewmate Mikhail Tyurin … and the first American woman to celebrate Christmas in orbit, Suni Williams. For them, the big day fitted in the middle of a busy week unpacking, recording, and stowing supplies brought by the recent STS-116 Shuttle visitors. In one of her Mission Logs, Williams noted that crew members were allocated a handful of off-days throughout the year and these were picked on the basis of operational constraints. “Remember we have our international partners here as well,” she wrote, “so not all holidays are ones that are observed in the U.S. I voted for taking all the holidays off, but that didn’t go over too well … ”

A year later, in 2007, the 20th continuous Christmas celebrated by humans saw the International Space Station’s first female skipper, Peggy Whitson, aboard the outpost, alongside Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and NASA astronaut Dan Tani. The season was tinged with some sadness, for Tani’s mother, Rose, had been killed on 19 December when her car was struck by a freight train in Chicago, Ill. By Christmas 2008, the station had received its European Columbus and Japanese Kibo modules, and Expedition 18 crew members Mike Fincke, Yuri Lonchakov, and Sandy Magnus were aboard.

Only two days before Santa’s arrival, Fincke and Lonchakov completed an EVA outside the Russian Segment, but their efforts were amply rewarded by Magnus, who prepared mesquite grilled albacore steaks, with a lemon and garlic paste sauce, together with Russian crab salad from the contents of her bonus food containers. She also made a point to request red, green, yellow, blue, and white icing to be among her foods to decorate some cinnamon, shortbread and butter cookies, which she distributed to her crewmates over the festive period. According to NASA, Magnus’ efforts contributed to “the high-calorie traditions so common on Earth this time of year.” A quick glance at the crew’s Christmas dinner is more than adequate to whet the appetite: smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, and mashed potatoes, together with asparagus, shrimp cocktail, dried blueberries, various tropical fruits, wheat flatbreads, and brown rice.

Expedition 22 crewmen—including the first Japanese astronaut to spend Christmas in orbit, Soichi Noguchi—pose with costumes and decorations, three days ahead of the big day in 2009. Photo Credit: NASA

A year later, the mid-winter festivities appeared to have died down and until the final few days before Christmas 2009 only two men—NASA’s Jeff Williams and Russia’s Max Surayev—occupied the outpost. All that changed on 22 December, when Soyuz TMA-17 docked and brought the final three members of the Expedition 22 increment: Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, US astronaut Timothy “T.J.” Creamer, and Japanese spacefarer Soichi Noguchi. And they arrived in style. Floating from their craft into the station, the three men were attired in the costumes of Santa’s helpers and elves and bore a Christmas tree—topped by a dangling decoration of Mr. Claus himself—on their shoulders and a large white sack full of presents. Kotov manhandled the tree, whilst Noguchi carried the sack, and Creamer, sporting genuine pointed ears and elven shoes, brought up the rear.

By this time, Christmases 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. Noguchi’s arrival made him the first Japanese to spend Christmas 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 Christmas 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 Christmas 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. On Christmas morning, their crewmates from the Russian Segment photographed them bailing out of their sleep stations to eagerly access their stockings and gifts. The most recent yuletide occupants of the ISS were last year’s Expedition 30 crewmen—NASA astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit, Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoli Ivanishin, and Oleg Kononenko, and Dutchman Andre Kuipers—who shared a Christmas meal and presents in one of the most spectacular settings imaginable.

“My collateral damage toll,” wrote Pettit in an online 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 Expedition 30, he added, his damage toll was steadily rising, although he acquiesced that “with our new internet capability on space station, I can at least send flowers!” Humanity had come a long way from the tiny gifts of cufflinks and man-in-the-Moon and figure-8 tie pins from the wives of Apollo 8 to their menfolk, way back in 1968, and Pettit 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.”

Expedition 26 crew members Scott Kelly (top), Paolo Nespoli (left), and Catherine “Cady” Coleman bail out of their sleep stations in the Harmony node on Christmas morning in 2010 to celebrate the big day. Photo Credit: NASA

Since the dawn of the Space Age, and including the six-strong Expedition 42 team, no fewer than 86 astronauts and cosmonauts have spent Christmas away from their loved ones, high above Earth. Among their number are Americans and Russians, Swiss and French, Germans and Japanese, Italians and Dutchmen, and Canadians—and, this week, for the first time in history, an Italian woman, too. Seventeen people, including NASA’s Mike Foale, Scott Kelly, and Don Pettit, have spent two Christmases aloft, and a trio of intrepid Russians—Sergei Avdeyev, Sergei Krikalev, and Aleksandr Kaleri—have celebrated the festive season on three occasions. And when Kelly participates in the scheduled year-long ISS mission in 2015-16, he will earn a personal and national record as the first American to spend as many as three Christmases away from Earth.

For the combined crew of Expedition 42, Christmas Day will be time to reflect, as Cady Coleman said four years ago, upon how much more “we” have, materially, in comparison to others on our Home Planet. There will be time for them to privately speak to their families and share some of the holiday festivities. There will be time for them to open gifts and break into stockings and wear Santa hats, perhaps, and enjoy hearty—though often certainly thermostablised, rehydratable, or irradiated—Christmas fayre.

And with Barry “Butch” Wilmore in charge, the chances of a hearty and festive dinner for Expedition 42 are pretty much guaranteed.


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