As Santa commences his yearly traverse across the world this evening, in search of those whose exploits over the past dozen months have been naughty or nice, it is worth pausing to remember those humans orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS), far from home, hearth and family. Tonight, Expedition 54 Commander Aleksandr Misurkin of Russia, together with his crewmates Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba and Scott Tingle of NASA, Japan’s Norishige Kanai and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov will observe a quiet time, as they close out 2017.
Celebrating Christmas in space is nothing new, particularly in the ISS era, whose multi-national crews have observed every Yuletide since 2000 aboard the station. Across those 18 Christmases, astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States and Russia, Japan and Italy, the Netherlands and Canada and the United Kingdom and France, have welcomed the day in fine style. Last year, moment was a mixture of joy and reflection. “O holy night,” tweeted Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough on Christmas Eve 2016, whilst newly-arrived Peggy Whitson gifted her crewmates with baseball caps and got them engrossed in a cookie-decorating contest. “They took it seriously,” she quipped, whilst sharing a handful of images of herself in Santa hat and Christmas-themed socks.
As we head towards 2018, the next year will mark a half-century since humans first spent Christmas away from their home world. In the small hours of Christmas Eve in 1968, Apollo 8 and its crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders slipped silently into orbit around the Moon, becoming the first men from Earth to do so. They photographed the electrifying sight of “Earthrise” from behind the barren lunar limb and took turns reading the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis to a rapt world. Borman’s closing words of “Goodnight, good luck, a merry Christmas and God bless all of you” sounded a deep note, after one of the most violent and tragic years in human history.
Five years later, in December 1973, Americans and Russians spent Christmas in orbit, with astronauts Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson and Bill Pogue aboard the Skylab space station, as cosmonauts Pyotr Klimuk and Valentin Lebedev pursued an independent mission on Soyuz 13. Although Russian Orthodox Christmas does not fall until 7 January, within the Soviet Union its observance was suppressed and little has ever come to light about whether Klimuk or Lebedev made any reference to the date. Aboard Skylab, Carr, Gibson and Pogue crafted a makeshift Christmas tree from packing materials and food containers, decorating it with crude ornaments. And on Christmas Day itself, Carr and Pogue performed a spacewalk to photograph Comet Kohoutek and collect and replace camera film aboard the station’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM).
Yuletides for the next quarter-century was almost exclusively observed by Russians, with cosmonauts occupying the Mir space station continuously from Christmas 1989 until 1998. During this time, the “internationalization” of the space program saw German and U.S. astronauts also celebrate the date of Christ’s birth on Mir. In 1996, former shuttle commander John Blaha and his Russian crewmates Valeri Korzun and Aleksandr Kaleri enjoyed “an outstanding menu” of lamb and pork, together with “a wonderful dessert” and Italian cheeses. “In six days,” Blaha said at the time, “we’re going to have quite a feast.”
In December 1999, STS-103 became the first—and only—shuttle mission to spend the holiday aloft. The seven-man crew, which included Swiss and French astronauts, performed a triumphant repair and upgrade of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), including a spacewalk on Christmas Eve. Next morning, STS-103 Commander Curt Brown radioed season’s greetings to Mission Control, his crew having been awakened to the strains of Bing Crosby’s I’ll Be Home for Christmas. They released Hubble back into space that afternoon and returned safely to Earth two days later.
And Brown’s words at that time, uttered before so many of the calamities and tragedies of the 21st century, are just as fitting today as they were back then. “The familiar Christmas story,” he 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.”