FOOD

Happy Space Thanksgiving: How the Food-Stuffed Holiday Went Orbital

“Just as on Earth, our feelings about Thanksgiving in space weren’t determined by the quality or the appearance of the meal—but by the people we shared it with.”

Becky Ferreira

Becky Ferreira

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins shows off his 2013 Thanksgiving feast. Image: NASA

On Thursday, friends and families convene around tables across the United States to celebrate gratitude, tradition, and the consumption of copious amounts of comfort food.

One Thanksgiving party will literally look down upon them all, as the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) continues its longstanding tradition of observing the festive harvest holiday from orbit. This year's menu includes irradiated smoked turkey, rehydratable cornbread dressing, green beans and mushrooms, broccoli au gratin, mashed potatoes, candied yams, sweet tea, and thermostabilized cherry blueberry cobbler for dessert.

"[Thanksgiving] is going to be a little different for us up here in space, but I'm going to try to make it as much like home as we can," said ISS commander and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, in a video posted Monday. All six members of ISS expedition 50 will share the feast, including fellow American astronaut Peggy Whitson, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov, Andrey Borisenko, and Oleg Novitskiy.

Shane Kimbrough outlines ISS Thanksgiving 2016 menu. Video: NASA/YouTube

Celebrating Thanksgiving in space may seem like a modern novelty, but it dates all the way back to 1973. That year, NASA astronauts Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson observed the holiday for the first time in Skylab 4, after completing an arduous work day that included a six-hour-long spacewalk. Even then, researchers recognized that observing holidays and practicing familiar cultural rituals could help astronauts psychologically anchor themselves in extreme, alien environments.

"Awed by the panorama of Earth's blue, white and green 272 miles below them, the astronauts expressed Thanksgiving Day gratitude for the American technology that had made their space voyage possible," wrote The Associated Press on November 23, 1973.

"One thing I'm grateful for is that we've got a bunch of people in this country who are enthused enough about this to put it all together and make it work," Gibson commented. Pogue dined on chicken and Carr opted for prime ribs, with only Gibson selecting the traditional turkey meal.

After Skylab's inaugural off-Earth Thanksgiving, the holiday did not overlap with manned American space missions until the second flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in November 1985.

But far from being forgotten, the tradition was resurrected and hailed by the seven Atlantis crew members as "'one of the best Thanksgivings" they had ever had, according to a contemporary Los Angeles Times article.

"For the holiday meal, Atlantis' pantry had a space-age version of a feast," according to the Times piece. "The menu included chicken consomme, sliced turkey, a mixture of corn, beans and pasta, cranberry sauce, pumpkin cake, butter cookies and a beverage."

From that point on, specialists at NASA's Space Food Systems Laboratory in Houston stocked a Thanksgiving meal whenever American astronauts were scheduled to spend the holiday in orbit (just as they prepare special supplies for other occasions like Christmas or the New Year). Shuttle astronauts Fred Gregory and Story Musgrave earned the distinction of being the first people to celebrate two Thanksgivings in space, in 1989 and 1991, which further cemented the tradition of observing festive occasions beyond the planet.

READ MORE: Native Americans Domesticated Turkeys Hundreds of Years Before Thanksgiving

"Normally, astronauts don't sit down to eat so much as graze, ripping open a package of beefsteak and letting it float next to us as we go about our work," Gregory recalled in a 2015 essay. "Since shuttles don't come with tables or chairs—or gravity, for that matter—the usual rituals of dining tend to go out the window."

"But this time, we piled our food onto metal meal trays. We blessed the food and our families before we dug in, swapping stories about our favorite Thanksgiving celebrations and traditions."

Cosmonauts Vladimir N. Dezhurov (left) and Mikhail Tyurin share a Thanksgiving meal with American ISS crew. Image: NASA

During the 1990s, the international spaceflight community became more collaborative, and that affected the dynamics of space Thanksgiving, as American astronauts began to share the feast with foreign crewmates from Russia, Japan, and the Ukraine.

When the ISS received its very first crew in November 2000, NASA's space food specialists, headed by veteran orbital cuisine expert Vickie Kloeris, were sure to pack a special Thanksgiving meal for their stay. The holiday has been observed by the multinational crews of the station ever since. (As an aside, Canadian Thanksgiving, which is celebrated on the second Monday of October, does not seem to have taken hold in space yet. Instead, Canadian astronauts throw in with the American timeline of the holiday while they're in orbit.)

Naturally, these hermetically packaged, shelf-stable Thanksgiving edibles lack much of the flavor and flare of the dishes that Earthbound feasters will be piling up on their plates. But these meal packs are still leaps and bounds beyond the humble dinners shared by the crew of Skylab over four decades ago, when manned spaceflight was still in its early years.

Like any other spaceflight sector, the science of space food continues to evolve, and future crewed missions to the Moon or Mars may have their own riffs on traditional holiday meals. Perhaps these feasts will incorporate 3D-printed ingredients, farmable insects, or vegetables grown in situon spacecraft or alien worlds.

But no matter what exotic dishes define future Thanksgivings on the Moon, or Mars, or in deep space, one hopes that the core values of the season supercede them. As Fred Gregory beautifully put it: "Just as on Earth, our feelings about Thanksgiving in space weren't determined by the quality or the appearance of meal—but by the people we shared it with."

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.