International Space Station’s 20th: Celebrating the Holidays in Space

By  //  December 24, 2020

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ABOVE VIDEO: Apollo 8 Christmas Message.

(NASA) – The Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s holidays are typically joyful events spent with family and friends.

Astronauts and cosmonauts who happen to be in space during the holidays have found their own unique ways to celebrate the occasions.

In the early years of the space program, holidays spent in space were relatively rare events, such as the flight of Apollo 8 around the Moon during Christmas 1968, making them perhaps more memorable. As missions became longer and more frequent, holidays in space became less rare occasions. For the past 20 years, holidays spent aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have become annual, if not entirely routine, events.

The famous Earthrise photograph, taken by the Apollo 8 crew in lunar orbit. (NASA Image)

The first crew to spend Christmas in space, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders, spent the holiday while circling the Moon in December 1968, the first humans to have left Earth orbit. They immortalized the event on Christmas Eve by taking turns reading the opening verses from the Bible’s book of Genesis as they broadcast scenes of the Moon gliding by below. An estimated one billion people in 64 countries tuned in to their Christmas Eve broadcast. As they left lunar orbit, Lovell radioed back to Earth, where it was already Christmas Day, “Please be informed there is a Santa Claus!”

The makeshift Christmas tree aboard Skylab in 1973. (NASA Image)

During their 84-day record-setting mission aboard the Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974, Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue, and Edward G. Gibson celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s in space.

Aboard Salyut-6, Georgi M. Grechko, left, and Yuri V. Romanenko, toast to celebrate the new year in space, the first Russian cosmonauts to do so. (RKK Image)

They were the first crew to spend Thanksgiving and New Year’s in orbit. Carr and Pogue spent seven hours on a Christmas Day spacewalk to change out film canisters and observe the passing Comet Kohoutek. They had built a homemade Christmas tree from leftover food containers, used colored decals as decorations, and topped it with a cardboard cutout in the shape of a comet.

Once back inside the station, they enjoyed a Christmas dinner complete with fruitcake, talked to their families, and opened presents. They even had visitors of sorts, as Soviet cosmonauts Pyotr I. Klimuk and Valentin V. Lebedev were in orbit aboard Soyuz 13 between Dec. 18 and 26, marking the first time that astronauts and cosmonauts were in space at the same time (and at five, the largest number of people in space up to that time).

In the more secular Soviet era, the New Year’s holiday had more significance than the Jan. 7 observance of Russian Orthodox Christmas. The first cosmonauts to ring in a new year in orbit were Yuri V. Romanenko and Georgi M. Grechko, during their 96-day record-setting mission in 1977 and 1978, aboard the Salyut-6 space station. They toasted the new year during a TV broadcast with the ground. The exact nature of the beverage consumed for the occasion has not been passed down to posterity.

STS-61 mission specialist Jeffrey Hoffman with a dreidel during Hanukkah in 1993. (NASA Image)

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day celebration of the recapture of Jerusalem and rededication of the Second Temple in 164 B.C.E. It is celebrated in the month of Kislev in the lunar Hebrew calendar, which can fall between late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. NASA astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman celebrated the first Hanukkah in space during the STS-61 Hubble Space Telescope repair mission in 1993.

Hanukkah that year began on the evening of Dec. 9, after Hoffman completed his third spacewalk of the mission. He celebrated with a traveling menorah, unlit of course, and by spinning a dreidel.

The STS-103 crew of Claude Nicollier, left front, Scott J. Kelly,
John M. Grunsfeld; Steven L. Smith, left rear, C. Michael Foale,
Curtis L. Brown, and Jean- François A. Clervoy, showing off their
Santa hats on the flight deck of space shuttle Discovery in 1999. (NASA Image)

The crew of another Hubble Space Telescope repair mission celebrated the first space shuttle Christmas in 1999 aboard Discovery. For Christmas dinner, Curtis L. Brown, Scott J. Kelly, Steven L. Smith, Jean- François A. Clervoy, John M. Grunsfeld, C. Michael Foale, and Claude Nicollier enjoyed duck foie gras on Mexican tortillas, cassoulet, and salted pork with lentils. Smith and Grunsfeld completed repairs on the telescope during a Christmas Eve spacewalk.

Between 1987 and 1998, 12 Mir expedition crews spent their holidays aboard the ever-expanding orbital outpost. Two crews included NASA astronauts John E. Blaha and David A. Wolf, aboard the Russian space station as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program.

Russian cosmonaut and Mir Expedition 17 flight engineer Elena V. Kondakova
with a bottle of champagne to celebrate New Year’s Eve 1994.

The arrival of Expedition 1 crew members William M. Shepherd, Yuri P. Gidzenko, and Sergei K. Krikalev aboard the ISS on Nov. 2, 2000, marked the beginning of a permanent human presence aboard the orbiting facility. They were the first to celebrate Christmas and ring in the new year aboard the orbiting laboratory and began a tradition of reading a goodwill message to people back on Earth. Shepherd honored a naval tradition of writing a poem as the first entry of the new year in the ship’s log.

Enjoy the following selection of photographs of international crews as they celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, and rang in the new year over the past 20 years aboard the ISS.

Mir Expedition 24 flight engineer and NASA astronaut
David A. Wolf with his menorah and dreidel to celebrate Hanukkah in 1997.