The 50th skipper of the International Space Station (ISS) and the first woman to spend as many as three Thanksgivings away from the Home Planet—together with their four Russian and French crewmates—will tuck into smoked turkey and cherried blueberry cobbler today (Thursday, 24 November), after wrapping up a full workday aboard the orbital outpost. Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough and his crew of Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko, and Oleg Novitsky, Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson will continue an unbroken period of 16 years in which an American citizen has been in orbit on Thanksgiving.
Speaking via NASA TV, earlier this week, Kimbrough offered his terrestrial audience a perspective of the kind of food and drink which the men and woman of Expedition 50 will enjoy. “Our crew’s going to have a Thanksgiving dinner,” he explained. “It is a workday for us, so we’re not going to get the day off, like most folks do in the United States, but we’re going to work all day and then we’re going to have an evening big dinner, full of most of the things that you’re going to have at your table.” Those things, he added, removing samples from packets on the station’s wall, included smoked turkey, candied yams, rehydratable mashed potatoes, cornbread dressing, green beans, and mushrooms, followed by a dessert of cherried blueberry cobbler. The rehydratable nature of many of these foods, in Kimbrough’s mind, makes the ability to properly celebrate Thanksgiving “that much more special.”
“I’m from Atlanta,” said the U.S. Army colonel, who launched aboard Soyuz MS-02 last month, shoulder-to-shoulder with Ryzhikov and Borisenko, “so I can’t have Thanksgiving dinner without having some sweet tea. In our case, we have sweet tea with lemon. I keep saying ‘we’, because I’ve made this meal for our entire crew.” And although Kimbrough acquiesced that his Russian and French crewmates generally do not observe Thanksgiving, unless they are in the United States on the big day, they would all participate in the celebration. “Thanksgiving in my world is not complete without some football,” Kimbrough concluded, “so we’re going to have Mission Control send up some live football games for us to watch, to complete the experience of Thanksgiving.” His words of closure were to express his own thanks as he enters his second month in orbit aboard the international outpost. “We’re very safe up here,” he said. “We’re going to have a great time enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with our colleagues.”
Both Kimbrough and Whitson have previously observed the holiday from low-Earth orbit. During his first mission, STS-126 in November 2008, Kimbrough and his crewmates were entering the homestretch of their 16-day voyage to the ISS. They hosted a Thanksgiving dinner of smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, candied yams, green beans, mushrooms, and a cranapple dessert aboard Shuttle Endeavour’s middeck, in honor of the station’s incumbent Expedition 18 crew. STS-126 astronauts Don Pettit and Steve Bowen toasted the holidays, past and future space explorers, and the pleasures of simply being in space—“just because we can”—with small packets of tea. Later on Thanksgiving evening, the hatches between Endeavour and the ISS were closed, ahead of undocking the next day.
For the 56-year-old Whitson, who became the oldest woman ever to venture into space when she launched alongside Novitsky and Pesquet aboard Soyuz MS-03, last week, it will be the third Thanksgiving that she has spent on-orbit. In fact, all three of her missions have seen her celebrate the holidays aloft. She becomes only the second American, after Story Musgrave, to have spent so many Thanksgivings away from Earth. Her first mission was aboard Expedition 5 in June-December 2002, during which her crew welcomed Shuttle Endeavour and the STS-113 astronauts over the festive period. This was the first time that a shuttle had ever been present at a space station during Thanksgiving. A spacewalk was performed on the day itself, but the shuttle and ISS crews later gathered around the table for a 10-person meal. “After a challenging day of work,” recalled 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.
Five years later, in November 2007, Whitson was entering her second month as the first female space station commander, leading Expedition 16. On this occasion, no shuttle was present and she was joined instead by her long-duration crewmates Dan Tani of NASA and veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. “When we think about Thanksgiving,” Tani explained, “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.” Floating alongside him, Whitson chipped in by explaining that most of the station’s Russian foodstuffs came canned. However, she and Tani had a particular penchant for the Russian chicken, adding “There’s none of that left!”
As Kimbrough celebrates his second Thanksgiving in space, and Whitson her record-tying third, NASA boasts a long history of observing this quintessential American holiday from high above the Home Planet. In fact, the first U.S. astronauts in orbit on the fourth Thursday of November were Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue—the final crew to occupy the Skylab space station—way back in 1973. They supported a 6.5-hour spacewalk on the day itself, loading camera film into the station’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). That night, the three men ate prime ribs, turkey, and chicken, which they described as somewhat bland, although salt and other condiments enhanced the taste.
Not for another 12 years would U.S. astronauts again break out celebratory food and drinks in space. Shuttle Atlantis launched a day before Thanksgiving in 1985 and, as a result, several of their stomachs were still in the process of adapting to the microgravity environment and in little mood for turkey and trimmings. Nevertheless, they had gotten themselves into the holiday spirit whilst at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), before launch. On-orbit, the seven crew members—including Mexico’s first man in space—ate turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn. Speaking years later, astronaut Bryan O’Connor remembered struggling 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.”
The next two Thanksgiving holidays spent in orbit by shuttle crews came in 1989 and 1991, on a pair of Department of Defense flights. Both missions included veteran astronauts Fred Gregory and Story Musgrave, who thus jointly became the first Americans to celebrate two festive seasons aloft. For Gregory, who commanded both shuttle flights, he appreciated the opportunity to share a “civilized” meal with his crewmates, eating on trays. And when Musgrave flew over Thanksgiving during STS-80 in November 1996, he became the first—and, until today, the only—U.S. citizen to have seen three holidays in orbit.
In addition to the STS-80 crew, November 1996 was unique in that another American was also in orbit, aboard a quite different spacecraft. Astronaut John Blaha, who had also flown over Thanksgiving with Gregory and Musgrave in 1989, was halfway through a four-month stay on Russia’s Mir space station. A similarly unique experience occurred a year later, when Columbia’s STS-87 crew celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey, cranberries, pumpkin cookies, and pecan pie, whilst astronaut Dave Wolf observed the day from Mir.
A further three years would elapse before the dawn of permanent habitation of the ISS and the beginning of a continuous U.S. presence in space for every successive Thanksgiving. In November 2000, Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd and his Russian crewmates Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev were four weeks into their five-month increment aboard a still-barebones space station, yet still found time to enjoy a meal of ham and smoked turkey. Since then, a wide variety of international crews have also joined in the festivities. Three shuttle crews have also been in orbit during the ISS era, either docked at the space station or having recently undocked on the day itself.
All told, 65 Americans have celebrated the holidays in space from November 1973 to present, two of whom—Musgrave and Whitson—have spent three Thanksgivings in orbit, whilst seven others have logged a pair of Thanksgivings away from the Home Planet. Added to that total, 40 others from Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Italy, and France have been aboard the shuttle or the ISS over Thanksgiving. Last year’s holiday occurred as NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko passed the 70-percent-complete stage of their year-long increment aboard the ISS. With today’s celebrations, and an expectation that station operations will continue through at least 2024, it can be expected that many more Americans and others will observe the Home Planet on the fourth Thursday of November for many more years to come. In view of recent planning determinations to reduce the number of Russian cosmonauts aboard the station from 2017, it is probable that next year’s Thanksgiving will see a much smaller crew. And with the “indirect handover” of operations normally associated with multiple-crew operations, it may be the case that only a single American astronaut—Mark Vande Hei—is in orbit next Thanksgiving.