The International Space Station will host seven crew members throughout the holiday season, the largest number ever for a laboratory in its 20 years of human presence on board.
The international crew includes NASA astronauts Kate Robins, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover Jr., and Shannon Walker. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, astronaut Soishi Noguchi; And Russian astronauts Sergei Kud Svereshkov and Sergey Ryzhikov.
International crew will sit together for a special meal. Team members will also call home to chat with friends, family, and loved ones.
“I am very happy to be on the space station this year because I will share American traditions with my international crewmates,” Walker said in November.
Noguchi said in November: “The year 2020 is a difficult year, but it is also a year of perseverance and resilience, and I truly hope that each of you cherishes every moment with your friends and family.” (The names of the Resilient Rover and SpaceX Crew-1 capsule Resilience, which launched this year, appear to be more relevant to the crew during the pandemic.)
Holidays off the ground
The astronauts have celebrated the tradition of celebrating holidays in space since the days of the Apollo mission, when the Apollo 8 crew shared the Christmas Eve message on live television broadcasts in 1968 in turns reading the Genesis Bible.
NASA astronaut Dr. Andrew Morgan told CNN that how these holidays are defined and celebrated is up to each crew individually, and space veterans tend to share suggestions and ideas with rookies before their ascent.
Morgan spent the entire holiday season on the space station in 2019 alongside his teammates Jessica Meir, Christina Koch, Alexander Skvortsov, Oleg Skripuchka and Luka Parmitano.
In the days leading up to the holiday, Morgan and his crew played Christmas music all over the station and played classic holiday movies to create a festive atmosphere. He said the crew also used a projector with a recording of the burning Yule log to make it look like it had a cozy fireplace in the station.
Due to the international nature of their crew, they have already celebrated Christmas twice: Christmas on December 25 and Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
If your idea of pre-planning is to buy Christmas gifts on Black Friday, then the situation is very different for the astronauts who think in advance of their space mission if it includes holidays.
“We had to think a year or more ago to make sure we bought these gifts, packed them and kept them a secret the whole time,” Morgan said.
Morgan knew that Parmitano had a special Russian treat called chocolate cheese, which is essentially a heavy chocolate dessert, so Morgan kept some to include with Parmitano’s gift. Morgan also gave each crew member a harmonica in their storage so that they could have a harmonica band on board.
Morgan missed his family and thought about the traditions he usually shares with them. One of his favorite things to do is spend the Christmas night lit only by candlelight. He grew up with this tradition and continues it with his family to this day.
When he woke up on Christmas morning at the space station, all lights in the modules were turned off, which is normal when the astronauts are asleep.
But Koch took tiny light bulbs and covered them with golden tape to make them look like small lit candles. They were everywhere – in the lab, crew wings, and the kitchen where the crew eats.
“When I saw that, I was suffocating from nostalgia,” Morgan said. “It made me think of missing out on my family during Christmas, but also think of Christina’s gesture. I paid attention to those little details, and they were very meaningful. It’s one of the many memories I cherish from my time in the Space Station.”
Happy New Years
The space station is running Greenwich Mean Time to stick to the schedule. The crew witnesses 16 sunrise and 16 sunset times each day as they orbit the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.
So when it comes time to say “Happy New Year”, the crew has many opportunities to celebrate. They make calls to every mission control as New Year arrives in their timezone.
New Years Eve is a much bigger holiday than Christmas for the Russian crew, so the whole crew has gathered to enjoy a big meal and toast for next year.
But another great tradition includes watching a Russian movie, which when translated basically means “irony of fate.” Morgan said that the 1976 Soviet romantic comedy television movie contains “a slightly strange plot about a man who has become very drunk, ends up in Leningrad and does not know how he got there.”
It is a cultural phenomenon that you see the film on New Year’s Eve in Russia, so it is shown in the Russian part to honor the tradition.
“The experience with our Russian crew mates was very special,” Morgan said. “This exchange of those traditions and the experience of other people’s holidays and sharing that with each other through an international staff, that is what I took away from that experience. It embodies everything good in international cooperation and the sharing of traditions across different countries.”
Celebration in seclusion
While astronauts usually have the ability to send emails, hold video conferencing and make phone calls, they are getting more time to do so so that they can communicate with family during the holidays.
In 2020, families and friends also connect with social distancing to stay safe.
“Even though it’s not perfect, we still have a lot to thank for,” Morgan said. “We have the technology available to be part of each other’s vacation experiences even though we’re very far away, whether it’s across states, oceans, or from low Earth orbit.”
It’s his first Thanksgiving since 2018. And while they usually host astronauts and astronauts in Houston who visit them for training, they can’t do it this year.
The key to enjoying this holiday season, Morgan said, is similar to how astronauts in space celebrate: planning, intent and thinking.
Morgan said he has reached out to people she hasn’t communicated with in a while, be deliberately thoughtful and make small gestures that have a big impact.
Before going into space, he collected pictures of his friends and family. In space, he took them to the dome, where Earth can be seen from the space station, and took pictures of his loved ones with Earth as a background. It was a simple thing, although it took some planning, but it did bring joy to his loved ones.
Morgan also shared his wish for the current crew on the space station as well as everyone on Earth.
“While they spend the holidays separated from their loved ones, so does the majority of people on this planet now,” Morgan said. “But this separation is limited. The crew will come back and unite, this epidemic will pass, and we will all meet as human beings.”