For the first time this year, Thanksgiving will be observed in low-Earth orbit by an all-female U.S. contingent, with astronauts Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara currently representing NASA aboard the International Space Station (ISS), part of the Expedition 70 crew. Accompanied by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, Konstantin Borisov and Nikolai Chub, Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa and Expedition 70 Commander Andreas Mogensen of Denmark, the multi-national crew will take today off, enjoying a Thanksgiving meal with a range of treats recently delivered aboard SpaceX’s CRS-29 Cargo Dragon.
“On Thursday, the entire seven-member crew will take the day off, relax and enjoy a hearty meal,” NASA explained. Their Thanksgiving feast is expected to include “turkey, duck, quail, seafood and cranberry sauce, followed by treats like chocolate, pumpkin spice cappuccino, rice cake and mochi, all based upon Expedition 70’s preferences.
In doing so, Moghbeli and O’Hara continue an unbroken period of more than two decades in which U.S. astronauts have celebrated this most quintessential of U.S. holidays aboard the ISS. And prior to November 2000, six earlier crews also tucked into their Thanksgiving meals aboard the voluminous interior of America’s Skylab space station and more recently the cramped confines of the Space Shuttle.
Speaking via NASA TV earlier this week, Expedition 70 shared some of their foods for the big day: packets of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, butternut squash, quorn—“one of my favorites,” said O’Hara—and a cranberry-apple dessert to finish. And they offered their personal perspectives of what Thanksgiving means to them.
“This year on-board the International Space Station, we’re thankful for many things, one of which is our unique vantage point, looking back at our beautiful home planet, Earth,” said Moghbeli, who marks her 89th day in space today after a 26 August launch aboard Dragon Endurance. “It’s a reminder to us that while everyone we know and love is back home on Earth, we need to protect it and take care of it.
“Not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving in the same way,” said O’Hara, who has been in orbit since mid-September and is observing her 69th day in orbit. “While this is a time for gratitude, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on our history and remember those who might not get to go home for Thanksgiving or enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.
“We hope everyone gets to enjoy moments filled with peace and spend time with their friends and family, loved ones and with Planet Earth,” she added. “On-board Space Station, we’re looking forward to a quiet day off and also a nice Thanksgiving dinner together.”
NASA boasts a long tradition of observing the holiday from low-Earth orbit. The first U.S. astronauts to spend November’s fourth Thursday off the planet were Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson and Bill Pogue—Skylab’s final crew—way back in 1973.
They performed a six-hour, 33-minute session of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on the big day itself, 22 November, to load camera film into Skylab’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). That evening, the three men ate prime ribs, turkey and chicken, which they described as somewhat bland, though salt and condiments enhanced the taste a little.
Twelve years later, in November 1985, Atlantis’ STS-61B crew broke out Thanksgiving food and drinks in space for the first time in the shuttle era. They had launched a day before the big day and several of the astronauts’ stomachs were still in the process of adapting to microgravity, which made turkey and trimmings not especially welcome.
However, the crew did get themselves into the holiday spirit at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) before launch. On-orbit, the seven astronauts—including Mexico’s first man in space—ate turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and corn.
Speaking many years later, STS-61B Pilot Bryan O’Connor remembered struggling with the food as his stomach adapted to weightlessness. “The gravy didn’t taste very good to me,” he told NASA’s Oral History Project. “The mashed potatoes were great, but I didn’t go for that turkey.”
The next pair of shuttle-era Thanksgivings came in November 1989 and November 1991, during a pair of Department of Defense missions. Both included astronauts Fred Gregory and Story Musgrave, who jointly became the first Americans to celebrate the festive day in space on two discrete occasions.
Gregory appreciated the opportunity to share a “civilized” meal with his crewmates, eating on trays. And when Musgrave flew again in November 1996, he became the first U.S. citizen to observe three Thanksgivings in space, an achievement since matched by fellow astronaut Peggy Whitson during her three ISS increments in 2002, 2007 and 2016.
In addition to Musgrave and his STS-80 crewmates, November 1996 proved unique in that another American was also in orbit, aboard a different spacecraft. Astronaut John Blaha, who had also flown over Thanksgiving with Gregory and Musgrave in 1989, was halfway through a four-month increment on Russia’s Mir space station. A similarly unique event occurred a year later, when the STS-87 crew ate turkey, cranberries, pumpkin cookies and pecan pie aboard shuttle Columbia as Dave Wolf observed Thanksgiving 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 found time to enjoy a meal of ham and smoked turkey.
Three shuttle crews were in orbit during the ISS era, either docked at the space station or having recently undocked on the day itself. In November 2008, STS-126 astronauts Don Pettit and Steve Bowen toasted the holiday, past and present, and enjoyed the pleasure of simply being in space—“just because we can”—with small packets of sweet tea.
Like Story Musgrave before her, Peggy Whitson is one of only two Americans to have observed three Thanksgivings off the planet in her life. Her first mission was aboard Expedition 5 in 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 ten-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 Russia’s 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 woefully: “There’s none of that left!”
All told, including Moghbeli and O’Hara, a total of 80 Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving in space, with Musgrave and Whitson having done so three times and ten others of NASA’s finest—Fred Gregory, John Blaha, Mike Lopez-Alegria, Shane Kimbrough, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Randy Bresnik, Scott Kelly, Shannon Walker, Mike Hopkins and Mark Vande Hei—having done so twice. Added to their ranks, astronauts and cosmonauts from Russia, Mexico, Japan, Ukraine, Germany, Belgium, Italy, France and Andreas Mogensen from Denmark have celebrated alongside them.
Next year’s Thanksgiving crew complement aboard the ISS is yet to be confirmed by NASA and the International Partners, although November 2024 will mark the 25th continuous year that a U.S. human presence in space has been maintained over the holiday season. And with Artemis II Commander Reid Wiseman—who recently spoke with AmericaSpace’s Alex Longo in a pair of interviews, here and here—and his crewmates Victor Glover, Christina Koch and Canada’s Jeremy Hansen also targeting a November 2024 launch, there remains a chance that humanity’s next lunar voyagers could fly to the Moon for the first time over Thanksgiving.
And that, surely, would make Thanksgiving 2024 a holiday to remember.