As millions of Americans the world over tuck into their Thanksgiving meals today (Thursday, 26 November), spare a thought for the six-strong Expedition 45 crew—Commander Scott Kelly of NASA, Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Volkov, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Japan’s Kimiya Yui—as they observe the holiday from their perch aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Although the day is a particularly significant one for Kelly and Lindgren, it has become customary for all nationalities to celebrate each other’s special occasions and the crew is expected to share a dinner of turkey, candied yams, rehydratable corn and potatoes au gratin. According to Kelly, who, alongside Kornienko, is presently a little over 70 percent of the way through a historic year-long stay aboard the orbiting outpost, the crew will have an off-duty day Thursday and expect to be watching football later this afternoon.
Continuing what has become a thread of traditional messages from ISS each Thanksgiving—most recently by the Expedition 42 crew last year—Kelly and Lindgren greeted their terrestrial audience from aboard the station’s largest single module, the 36.7-foot-long (11.2-meter) Japanese Kibo laboratory. Opening the proceedings, Lindgren took the microphone to extend Thanksgiving wishes. “We are incredibly thankful for the opportunity to be up here on the International Space Station, working and living in this amazing orbiting laboratory,” he said, glowingly describing the outpost as “a physical manifestation of what is possible when the great countries of the world work together with communication, co-operation and collaboration towards peaceful means to perform research that benefits humanity back on the Earth.”
Lindgren, who is observing his first Thanksgiving in space, then passed the microphone to Kelly, who also spent the holiday season aloft in the fall of 2010, during his five-month Expedition 25/26 increment. During his second long-duration occupancy of the ISS, Kelly has secured records for the greatest cumulative amount of time spent off the planet by a U.S. citizen and the longest single American space mission, as well as chalking up two discrete commands of the multi-national outpost. “Being on the space station and looking down on our incredibly beautiful planet gives us a different perspective on what it means to be citizens of Planet Earth,” Kelly began. “As I’ve been up here, we’ve seen so many bad things that happen down there. We follow that on the news and it just makes me really thankful to live in a country like the United States, that provides us with freedom and opportunity, and for me being a middle-class kid from New Jersey to have the privilege to come up here and represent my country like this.”
Turning to the Expedition 45 crew’s plans for Thursday, Kelly noted that the six astronauts and cosmonauts would be taking the day off. “We’re going to watch some football,” he said. “It’s going to be a little later in the afternoon for us and we’re also going to have a little Thanksgiving dinner of space food.” Right on cue, Lindgren reached out to display and sample several examples of their menu: turkey, candied yams, rehydratable corn and potatoes au gratin. As Lindgren tried a piece of turkey, Kelly told his audience: “We don’t have much of this stuff, so I hope he enjoys that, as that was his Thanksgiving dinner, right there!” Seconds later, the tables of humor were turned on Kelly, as he proceeded to release a large glob of candied yams from the packet, to hysterical laughter from Lindgren. Amid mouthfuls, Kelly mumbled “Man, they are delicious!”
The stunning imagery returned from the station, and particularly from Twitter-savvy crew members Kelly and Lindgren, has been accompanied by their own messages of thanks. “Hard not to feel #gratitude with a world view like this,” Kelly tweeted last night, as he shared a beautiful panorama of a sleeping Earth, before closing with his customary “#GoodNight from @space_station! #YearInSpace.” Kelly also noted on Tuesday (24 November) that he and Kornienko are entering the homestretch of their year-long mission. “We usually celebrate 100 days in space,” he tweeted, displaying a “Happy 100” banner inside the station’s multi-windowed cupola, “but today I mark 100 to go!”
With the ISS Program having recently witnessed 15 years of continuous occupation, since the 2 November 2000 arrival of Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd and his Russian crewmates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, Thanksgiving has been a staple of celebratory time on the fourth Thursday of each November. Last year, Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore reflected on the challenges facing America’s early settlers, which he described as “the genesis” of the holiday season. Wilmore’s crew enjoyed smoked turkey, cornbread dressing and cranberry pie, picking up the baton from Expedition 38 astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio in November 2013, who described the station as “the next best place” to spend Thanksgiving, if they could not be with their families. And a year before that, Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford was the only American in orbit for the holiday and took time to share views of his sack of goodies, including a cranberry-peach drink, a cherry-peach cobbler dessert, a packet of marshmallow cream and even a handful of Russian specialties, such as mashed potato and onion purée and apple pudding.
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 the days before Thanksgiving 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 12 months 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, Commander 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!”
Previous times saw Mike Lopez-Alegria become the first American to celebrate two Thanksgivings aboard the ISS—during his STS-113 mission in the fall of 2002 and subsequent command of Expedition 14 in late 2006—and it was interesting that the first of these occasions was also the first time that a shuttle was present for the holidays. Orbiter Endeavour’s crew joined the outgoing Expedition 5 and Expedition 6 crews for an unprecedented ten-person meal and Lopez-Alegria and John Herrington performed an EVA on the day itself 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 and mushrooms”, followed by a dessert of blueberry-cherry cobbler on tortilla. Right back at the very start of continuous ISS habitation—and confined to the Russian-built Zvezda and Zarya modules—Expedition 1 crew were four weeks into their five-month increment in November 2000, but found time to enjoy a meal of ham and smoked turkey.
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 coloring.
As a consequence, 2015 marks the 16th continuous year that Thanksgiving has been observed by American citizens in orbit. However, there have been other occasions. The first men to spend the holiday away from the Home Planet were the final Skylab crew in November 1973—Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson and Bill Pogue—who supported a 6.5-hour EVA on the day itself, loading camera film into the station’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). That evening, they celebrated with prime ribs, turkey and chicken, which they described as good, albeit somewhat blend, though their ordeal was aided by condiments such as salt.
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 Sherwood “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 shuttle 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 through 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.
Since Mission 61B in November 1985, no fewer than eight shuttle crews 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 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 (TPS) 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. Seven others—Fred Gregory, John Blaha, Mike Lopez-Alegria, Peggy Whitson, Don Pettit, Barry “Butch” Wilmore and now Scott Kelly—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 24 November 2016, will see Expedition 50/51 crew member Peggy Whitson become the first woman to celebrate as many as three Thanksgivings in orbit, tying with Musgrave.
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