What's Christmas like in orbit?

On board the ISS, the crew spend the holiday amongst the stars

 

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Expedition 34 prepare to celebrate Christmas in 2012 in front of their personalised stockings.
Credit: NASA/ESA

For most people, Christmas is a time to gather with family and friends. But not everyone gets to spend the holiday at home – for Tim Peake and the other five astronauts on board the International Space Station they don’t even get to spend it on Earth.

This isn’t lost on the various space agencies involved in the ISS: they try to make Christmas Day as festive and memorable as possible for the astronauts on board. Just as they would at home, the astronauts put up decorations – specially made so they are safe for use on the ISS. A small plastic tree, sometimes attached to the ceiling or otherwise left to float around, has been part of the space station’s essential supplies for many years, as have the garlands, Santa hats and the Christmas stockings personalised for each crew.

In 2010, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli of Expedition 26 awoke with the rest of his crewon Christmas morning to find gifts tied to one of the hatches. “This discovery was really astonishing because none of us put them there. It was a real surprise.” To this day, no one has admitted doing it. “Of course, it must have been Father Christmas who put them there!”

Expedition 26 wake on Christmas morning
Credit: NASA/ESA

Regardless of whether Santa hurries down the chimney – or in the case of the ISS, through a vent – or not presents remain an important part of the celebrations. Even in space, astronauts can still get gifts from their loved ones.

“We have a small container that families can put stuff in that we don’t know about, to surprise us,” says NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, who spent last Christmas on the ISS as part of Expedition 34. “But they have to do that about a year in advance.”

Scott Kelly is back on the ISS now, making this his second Christmas in space.
Credit: NASA

As you might expect, the crew spends the day itself eating too much at a big communal meal. In previous years the crew dined in the space station’s Russian segment, where the cosmonauts gave a sliced apple and a tin of caviar to each of their companions. As they float around the table, the crews may sing songs or swap stories about their traditions for the holiday back home on Earth. “It was really special for us to remember why the holiday is important,” says Marshburn.

Being reminded of what they’re missing can make the long, sometimes lonely, stay on the ISS all the more poignant. “I have a 10-year-old daughter,” says Marshburn. “That’s what I missed the most. There are a limited number of years that Christmas is going to be such a special day for your child.”

Expedition 26 open their care packages from Earth.
Credit: NASA

It’s little surprise that the most important event of the day is a chance for the astronauts to phone home, a task that requires a lot of planning on all sides. “The day centred around contacting home. We were able to get a video conference with family – my daughter had to be reminded to ‘show Dad what you got’,” he recalls. “Then I was thanking my sisters, brothers and wife for the presents they’d put in the container the year before, and they had to try and remember what they were!”

With the long nights upon us, you may be able to spot the ISS passing over the UK in the run up to Christmas. And if you do so, spare a thought for those six people passing over your heads, looking down on the world below.

Tim Peake and the other astronauts on the ISS send their good wishes back home to Earth.
Credit: NASA

This article appeared in a longer the December 2013 edition of BBC Sky at Night Magazine, available via iTunes and Android

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