How to Celebrate Christmas in Space
Credit: NASA

How to Celebrate Christmas in Space

20/12/2021Written by Harsh Patel

Food, family, presents... How do astronauts celebrate? Discover the past, present and future of Christmas in Space.

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mascot Telescope Right

Houston, we have Christmas presents!

As the festive season approaches, have you ever wondered what it is like to celebrate in micro-gravity? Well floating cookies and stockings are not the only thing the crew think about as astronauts celebrate Christmas and the holiday season in space.

Christmas Present

Christmas Present
ISS Expedition 66 patch

Astronauts from Expedition 66, Anton Shkaplerov, Mark Vande Hei, Pyotr Dubrov, Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, Kayla Barron, and Matthias Maurer will be having a truly out of this world holiday season by spending it on board the International Space Station (ISS) for Christmas 2021. Being on the ISS is no holiday, ironically. The crew up there have a lot of important work to do, such as science experiments and general maintenance. (We cannot have the ISS falling back down to Earth on Christmas Day, can we?). Due to these important schedules, not all crew will be having the day off but they will still have Christmas dinner when they all get the chance.  

What else will the crew be doing during the mission? According to NASA: “During Expedition 66, crew members will conduct experiments that could help us identify new materials with innate antimicrobial properties that could be used in designing future space crafts.” 

Christmas Past

Christmas Past
A Christmas Tree on the ISS. Credit: Chris Hadfield
Christmas Past
Astronauts Michael Fincke and Sandra Magnus baked Christmas cookies on the ISS. Credit: NASA
Christmas Past
Astronaut Jessica Meir showed off her Hanukkah socks in the cupola. Credit: NASA

Just like here on Earth each crew member has their own quirky way to celebrate the holiday season, and here are just a few: 

Christmas Trees: In 2012 Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted how his crew had decorated the ISS. Our tree is up – on the ceiling! The beauty of a weightless Christmas.”

In the future, if we grow Christmas trees in space they might not look the same as here on Earth. Find out more about how plants grow in space in this blog.

Christmas Cookies: In 2008 astronauts Sandra Magnus and Michael Fincke baked Christmas cookies in a brand new space oven. This was an experimental activity where they baked five cookies with intense heat and micro-gravity on the ISS. Unfortunately, tempting as they may look, they were not allowed to eat them.

Hanukkah: Astronaut Jessica Meir is Jewish and she celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas on the ISS, taking this picture whilst wearing her Hanukkah socks in the Cupola module.

Decorations

Decorations
A festive Yule log is projected on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Decorations are a must! Even in outer space. On the ISS the astronauts struggle to find where their predecessors have kept them all. I guess some things do not change. A two-foot-tall artificial tree is displayed in the halls with extra touches like stockings, depending on the astronauts.  

During astronaut Andrew Morgan’s stay on the ISS, on Christmas morning all the lights were turned off in the modules and a festive Yule log was projected for a recurring tradition that happens in his family home back on Earth.

Family

Family
The International Space Station above Earth. Credit: NASA

Christmas is all about spending time with friends and loved ones but that is hard to do when you’re over 400 km above Earth, orbiting around our planet at 7.6 km/s! (That’s about 17,500 miles per hour! I wonder if it’s faster than Santa’s sleigh?) 

Due to our advanced technology, we can now send messages between the ISS and Earth instantaneously. So, they can send all the Christmas joy they need to. This ability to communicate with Earth helps keeps astronauts happy even outside of the festive season which is important for mental health! The last known internet speed upgrade for the station was in 2019 and it was boosted to 600 megabits per second. That’s nearly 12 times faster than the average internet speed in England. 

Presents

Presents
(L-R) Jessica Meir, Luca Parmitano, Andrew Morgan and Christina Koch celebrate Christmas in space - in matching pyjamas. Credit: NASA

The crew take part in Secret Santa in space, which requires a lot of planning. “We had to think about a year or more in advance to make sure we purchased, packed and kept these gifts a secret the entire time.” – Astronaut Andrew Morgan

He gave everyone a harmonica in their stocking and created a harmonica band on board. Which I would suggest is a win-win situation.

Food

Food
Examples of 1980s and 1990s Soviet space food

A general main course for the astronauts’ Christmas meal includes: Roasted turkey, jellied cranberry sauce, macaroni & cheese, potatoes au gratin, southwestern corn, spicy green beans, cornbread dressing and wheat flat bread. 

For dessert options include: cherry & blueberry cobbler, cranberry & apple dessert, shortbread cookies, sparkle gel (edible glitter) and French vanilla cappuccino. 

The normal diet for an astronaut consists of three meals a day, selected in advance by nutritionists to ensure they get the correct number of calories and a balanced supply of vitamins. But these foods don’t taste as good as they do back on Earth. Mainly because our taste senses don’t work as efficiently in micro-gravity. Food preparation varies with the food type. Foods like brownies and fruits can be eaten instantaneously but other foods can require water, like macaroni and cheese. To warm the food an oven is provided – ideal for a Christmas meal. 

A fact you probably didn’t know is that salt and pepper are only available in liquid form. This is because if they sprinkled them normally it would float everywhere and cause chaos. That would be very dangerous on the ISS as it could clog air vents and contaminate equipment. 

Apollo 8

Apollo 8
Earthrise on Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

Santa’s sledge went a long way for this one! 

The first festive space mission took place between 21-27 December 1968. The Apollo 8 astronauts left Earth paving the way for later crews to accomplish the goal of putting humans on the Moon. The astronauts shared the festive spirit by giving a very famous message from 234,400 miles away. This is the furthest humankind has celebrated the Christmas season. The message spoken by Commander Frank Borman went as follows: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” 

So that’s how Christmas is celebrated off Earth on the ISS, but looking towards the future, how do you think we will celebrate Christmas on other planets?  

For example on a crewed mission to Mars? NASA is aiming to send people to Mars orbit by the 2030s! The thing about Mars is though, it takes a lot longer to go around the Sun. Its orbital year is 687 days! That’s almost double Earth’s year. Can you imagine having Christmas every other year? At least on Mars you won’t have to hear any of those Christmas carols that you can’t stand every year. You know which ones I’m talking about. 

About the author: Harsh Patel is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.