“Pass the turkey, please.” “Do you have room for dessert?” The elements of a traditional Thanksgiving meal are passed around in plastic pouches instead of platters and bowls, but the spirit of this holiday in space is the same as at home. Gathered around (or over!) a makeshift table, crewmates have celebrated Thanksgiving on Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the Russian Mir space station, and the International Space Station (ISS). It may be harder to resist the tug of tradition than the tug of gravity; Thanksgiving is a holiday, wherever you are.
No one in space spends hours preparing the feast. The food is ready in minutes, simply by adding hot water or placing it in a small warming oven. Food scientists in Houston prepared everything months in advance, then dehydrated or radiated or thermostabilized (“canned”) it to prevent spoilage, and put individual servings in vacuum-sealed packages to be carried into orbit and kept in a stowage locker until the big day. The space station has no refrigerator or freezer to keep food fresh, and serving sizes are calculated to provide a balanced nutritional diet.
Crewmembers take turns preparing meals, which are bundled together by day. There are no tantalizing aromas to whet the appetite while foods are warming, no plates heaped with servings of this and that, and little clean-up to do after the meal. Imagine a small tray Velcroed to your thigh and six little packages of food Velcroed to the tray. You snip each one open with scissors, dip your spoon or fork in, and finally savor the tastes. Maybe you are dangling from the ceiling or anchored to foot loops on the floor; your posture really doesn’t matter.
Twice, groups of ten shared Thanksgiving dinner in space: the combined crews of ISS Expedition 18 and shuttle mission STS-126 in 2008, and the next year’s Expedition 21 and STS-129 crews. This year, six people—two Americans, three Russians, and one Italian—are dining together about 250 miles above the planet. The menu for their Thanksgiving meal is similar to most Americans’. They will enjoy smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, candied yams, and fruit cobbler, along with powdered beverages (no alcohol or sodas allowed in orbit). They won’t be watching football after dinner but will have time off duty to relax after their portion-controlled feast. There are no seconds or left-overs to snack on. Many people like to take a long walk or play touch football on Thanksgiving Day to work up an appetite while waiting for the turkey to roast. One space station crew, Expedition 5 in 2002, took a novel approach to pre-dinner exercise: a spacewalk! It wasn’t for recreation; they had a job to do outside first. To learn more about celebrating holidays in space, you will find quite a few accounts by doing a Google search, as well as this collection of photos: Holidays in Space, An Astronauts Photo Album, and information on the history of food in space. Meanwhile, enjoy your own feast with friends and family, and be sure to appreciate having leftovers.
Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore delivers a special Thanksgiving message from the International Space Station.