‘Fifteen Midnights’: Celebrating the New Year in Space (Part 2)

The Expedition 42 crew includes Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (third from right), who is celebrating his second Christmas and his second New Year in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA
The Expedition 42 crew includes Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (third from right), who is celebrating his second Christmas and his second New Year in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Three days from now, six pairs of eyes will be glued to the windows of the International Space Station (ISS), straining to catch a first glimpse of fireworks around the world, as humanity bids farewell to 2014 and ushers in the New Year. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore of NASA, his Russian crewmates Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov, together with U.S. astronaut Terry Virts and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, are midway through a mission which will see extensive preparations for the reconfiguration of the ISS and for the first year-long crew. For 15 consecutive years, astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States and Russia—and a handful from Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, and Canada—have celebrated New Year in orbit, but in 2014, for the first time, two women will be away from the Home Planet for the first time. 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 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, 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 laboratory, 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.

Suni Williams became the first American woman to spend both Christmas and New Year away from Earth in 2006-07. Photo Credit: NASA
Suni Williams became the first American woman to spend both Christmas and New Year away from Earth in 2006-07. Photo Credit: NASA

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 Segment. 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 at the International Space Station, which 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, 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 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 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. At the end of 2011, a Dutchman—Expedition 30 crew member 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 will see six men from Russia, the United States, and Japan celebrating the passage of one year into the next. The incumbent Expedition 38 crew consists of Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky, Mike Hopkins, Mikhail Tyurin, Koichi Wakata, and Rick Mastracchio.

Andre Kuipers, the first Dutchman to celebrate the New Year in space, works in the station's Quest airlock during his six-and-a-half-month mission. Photo Credit: NASA
Andre Kuipers, the first Dutchman to celebrate the New Year in space, works in the station’s Quest airlock during his six-and-a-half-month mission. Photo Credit: NASA

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 International 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 in July 2012 after six and a half 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 42 crew, currently aboard the ISS, no fewer than 70 astronauts and cosmonauts have spent New Year away from their loved ones, high above Earth. Among their number are Americans and Russians, Germans and Japanese, Italians and Dutchmen, and Canadians. Eleven people, including a single American, Don Pettit, 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.

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 space shuttle 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 affected 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 outpost’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 a 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, the beta-angle issue would have forced a delay until at least the middle of January 2007.

To date, Don Pettit is the only American astronaut to have spent two New Years off the planet. Photo Credit: NASA
To date, Don Pettit is the only American astronaut to have spent two New Years off the planet. Photo Credit: NASA

Evaluations in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) offered some scope to understand how the orbiter’s computers might respond to a YERO event, however, 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, 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 YERO.

Now, more than three years after the final shuttle flight, the combined crew of Expedition 42—Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore of NASA, Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti—will have ample opportunity over the New Year period to reflect upon their time in the most extraordinary environment ever explored by humans. There will be time to look out for fireworks around the world, during their “Fifteen Midnights,” and there will also be time to speak privately to their families.

And therein lies the greatest difficulty. Two New Years ago, U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford was in command of the ISS, on 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 STS-32, an ambitious shuttle mission from January 1990, which launched one satellite, retrieved another, and even played host to an impromptu birthday celebration. 


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