Christmas Day in Space

While you are opening your presents under the Christmas tree, singing some Christmas carols or sitting down to tuck into your turkey dinner on 25 December, spare a thought for a few people above you! Yes, indeed, there will be people onboard the International Space Station spending their Christmas amongst the stars.

Image of xmas stockings on ISS

“Sharing some gifts in space” From left to right, Yuri I. Malenchenko, flight engineer representing Russia's Federal Space Agency; NASA astronauts Peggy A. Whitson, commander; and Daniel Tani, flight engineer. (Image credit: NASA)

Only a few individuals have ever spent Christmas in space, the first of which were astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders who were onboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft. They were launched up into orbit in 1968 as preparation for the Moon landing mission of Apollo 11. On Christmas day the crew of Apollo 8 had a surprise when they opened their food containers and found a meal of real turkey and stuffing and three miniature bottles of brandy alongside presents from their wives. To mark this historic event the crew also sent back Christmas greetings to Earth, closing with a special message, “good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth”.

Image of Skylab Christmas Tree

More tins than tinsel: the Skylab Christmas tree (Image Credit: NASA)

The next set of astronauts to spend some festive time in space were the crew of Skylab 4 in 1973. This venture placed the third and final crew onto the Skylab space station. To celebrate the occasion the crew, Gerald Carr, William Pogue and Edward Gibson made a Christmas tree out of food cans, an inventive way to mark the holiday period don’t you think?

Spending Christmas in space continues today with astronauts and cosmonauts having this holiday period onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The first Christmas spent aboard the ISS occurred in the year 2000 with members of Expedition One. A quiet day was had by astronaut Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, gifts were opened and they got to talk to their families back on Earth. On the Space Station they can send emails back home as well as using video conferencing equipment to keep in touch with their loved ones. This year marks what will be the tenth Christmas that astronauts have spent onboard the ISS in succession. This got me thinking about what it would be like to spend the festive season 350km (240 miles) up in space. You could even catch a glimpse of Santa making his rounds around the world!

First of all the ISS kitchen has quite a few differences to what we are used to here on Earth. The Space Station has no fridge or oven, so meals have to have a long shelf life and be easily reheatable in small warmers so fresh turkey is a no-go area. Also there are no knives and no chairs, most meals are eaten with a spoon, and, because of microgravity chairs are not necessary. Crew members float around the table, and can strap themselves down to one spot using Velcro. The crew eats from disposable plastic containers and aluminium pouches holding food to the table with bungee cords and magnets. There would be no such discussions like “pass the gravy” around the ISS Christmas dinner table!

According to NASA’s Vickie Kloeris, who manages the food for the ISS, the standard holiday menu includes a lot of traditional holiday foods. Smoked turkey, dehydrated mashed potatoes and thermostabilised cranberry sauce are on the list of acceptable menu choices. Astronauts also have a “bonus box” so if they know that they are going into orbit at Christmas time they can bring with them some festive treats, maybe cookies or certain types of nuts. However they cannot have anything that requires refrigeration as there is no facility on the space shuttle to keep food cool. However on the ISS they do have a small chiller for drinks to be kept cool after preparation (the ISS is a no-go area for alcohol however!). Although food in space can be quite bland and not too exciting over the holiday period, Vickie does point out a benefit to being in orbit over the Christmas period, “the great thing about being on the station is you can celebrate Christmas twice because the Russians celebrate orthodox Christmas in January”.  Vickie continues, “They get the day off so typically they will plan a special meal and pull out some of the special foods”.

Image of Christmas onboard the ISS

“Getting into the holiday spirit onboard the ISS” Astronaut William S. McArthur Jr. (right), Expedition 13 commander and NASA space station science officer, and cosmonaut Valery I. Tokarev(left). (Image credit: NASA)

Do keep in your thoughts the astronauts onboard the ISS this year! Many wonderful photographs are taken from the space station looking back at Earth, perhaps this year they may catch a glimpse or even get a photo of a man wearing a red suit in a sleigh with reindeers flying across the sky!

Wishing you all a peaceful and happy Christmas here on Earth and above!

Sinead McNicholl, Education Support Officer (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)

By Sinead McNicholl, Education Support Officer