Thanksgiving in Space

Thanksgiving in space

Welcome to this special Thanksgiving installment of The Intelligence Brief… this week, we’ll be taking a look at the history of Thanksgiving celebrations in space. Items on the menu include 1) Thanksgiving on board the International Space Station (ISS), 2) how food is prepared and sent to space, and how astronauts eat in the absence of gravity, and 3) a brief history of Thanksgiving celebrations in space over the decades.

Quote of the Week

“The turkey. The sweet potatoes. The stuffing. The pumpkin pie. Is there anything else we all can agree so vehemently about? I don’t think so.”

-Nora Ephron

Latest News: In recent coverage from The Debrief, Christopher Mellon asks whether our elected officials should seek out and initiate disclosure of information the U.S. government possesses about UAP. Elsewhere, new research suggests AI that mirrors human neural networks could pave the way toward an artificially intelligent brain-like system. You can find all our recent stories at the end of this newsletter.

Podcasts: In podcasts from The Debrief, this week on The Debrief Weekly Report, MJ Banias and Stephanie Gerk explain why you should never, ever, read mysterious ancient tablets out loud. Elsewhere, on The Micah Hanks Program, I provide a recap of my recent visit to Stanford University for The Sol Foundation’s first annual event. You can subscribe to all of The Debrief’s podcasts, including audio editions of Rebelliously Curious, by heading over to our Podcasts Page.

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With all that behind us, we now head into orbit to take a look at one of the most unique holiday traditions that exists: Thanksgiving in space.

Thanksgiving Aboard the ISS

While most Americans will be gathering around the table to celebrate this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, astronauts aboard the International Space Station will also be continuing a long tradition of celebrating from Earth’s orbit.

“For astronauts embarked on long-duration space missions, separation from family and friends is inevitable and they rely on fellow crew members to share in the tradition and enjoy the culinary traditions as much as possible,” reads a NASA FAQ page on astronaut Thanksgiving traditions.

Thanksgiving in space
A festive looking Expedition 53 crew celebrates Thanksgiving in 2017 (Credit: NASA)

So how do astronauts celebrate Thanksgiving aboard the space station, and what’s it like to enjoy a holiday meal in the absence of gravity to keep the gravy from floating away? Let’s look at a few of the items on this year’s Thanksgiving menu on the ISS, as well as the science of eating in space, and what past celebrations in orbit have involved.

The Subtle Science of Dining in Space

Astronauts pretty much already have dining in space down to a science. Food is prepared at NASA’s Space Food Systems Lab, where it is dehydrated and packaged in plastic packets prior to being carried into orbit, and ultimately delivered to the ISS aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

Once it arrives at the ISS, all meal ingredients must be rehydrated after being delivered to orbit, which can take up to a half an hour for most meals. Once the food is prepared, fabric fasteners are used to attach individual containers holding various sides and main dishes onto a larger food tray, which is either fastened to some portion of the ISS, or even to the astronauts themselves.

Thanksgiving in space
Thanksgiving dinner is held to the table using fittings aboard the ISS during Expedition 21 and STS-129’s holiday meal in 2009 (Credit: NASA)

Fortunately, Thanksgiving dinner will be a little nicer than the average rations served aboard the space station. Earlier this month, a delivery aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft carried a special holiday meal for the current Expedition 70 crew, which included Thanksgiving standards like turkey and duck, as well as favorite side dishes that included cranberry sauce, as well as a variety of other dishes that include seafood, Mediterranean fare, and even ingredients for pumpkin spice coffees and deserts.

An Orbital Holiday Tradition

Thanksgiving celebrations in space are nothing new; they mark a unique tradition that astronauts have observed for many decades.

The first Thanksgiving in space was celebrated by Skylab 4 astronauts Gerald P. Carr, Edward G. Gibson, and William R. Pogue in November 1973. Although the men enjoyed a hearty double-meal after missing lunch due to a 6.5 hour spacewalk undertaken earlier that day, there were no special dishes provided in observance of the holiday like astronauts receive today.

Thanksgiving in space in 1973 during the Skylab 4 mission.

The next Thanksgiving celebration in orbit would not transpire for another twelve years, until the seven-member crew of STS-61B enjoyed irradiated turkey and cranberry sauce, along with shrimp cocktail, while on board the space shuttle Atlantis in 1985. Four years later, the STS-33 crew would celebrate Thanksgiving aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Two years later in 1991, Fred Gregory and Story Musgrave, who had both been on the STS-33 mission in 1989, celebrated their second Thanksgiving from orbit, this time aboard the space shuttle Atlantis along with the rest of the STS-44 crew.

Subsequent Thanksgiving celebrations ensued in space in 1996, when astronaut John Blaha joined several Russian cosmonauts aboard the space station Mir, while his fellow American astronauts with the STS-80 crew dined aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Although they were on separate spacecraft at the time, Blaha and the STS-80 astronauts exchanged holiday greetings via radio, and together achieved what, at the time, was a new record for the number of Americans simultaneously celebrating Thanksgiving in space.

The following year, that record was broken when David Wolf, also celebrating Thanksgiving from space alongside his Russian cosmonaut crew, helped to round out the even larger American crew of STS-87, with a combined total of nine Americans celebrating in orbit that year. Similar celebrations carried on into the 2000s, with meal options improving significantly over time to include items like candied yams, cornbread, green beans, and a variety of deserts worthy of Thanksgiving spreads generally only seen on Earth.

Thanksgiving meals are heated aboard the ISS (Credit: NASA).

The tradition has continued right up to today, with the recent celebratory meal items that were delivered to the ISS for Expedition 70 to enjoy from their orbit approximately 250 miles above Earth. Wherever you may find yourself this holiday, we wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving, and a wonderful holiday season.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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