New Year in orbit: how astronauts celebrate the holidays

As you read this, there are ten people in space — seven aboard the ISS and three more aboard China’s Tiangong station. All of them will be in orbit today as New Year comes. But will the space explorers celebrate it? And how will they do it?

Christmas on the way to the Moon

The first space flights did not last long. So, of course, they tried to plan them in such a way that they did not fall on holidays. The first Christmas in space was celebrated by the crew of the Apollo 8 mission on December 25, 1968. At that time, the spacecraft was in orbit around the Moon.
Children on Earth watching a Christmas broadcast from the Apollo 8 spacecraft (1968). Source: Bruce Dale/National Geographic/Getty Images

It is known that the families of some astronauts were not too happy about the fact that their loved ones would have to spend Christmas away from home. But due to the inexorable demands of orbital mechanics, as well as fears that the USSR might once again overtake the United States, NASA had to launch Apollo 8 on the eve of the holiday.

The crew celebrated Christmas by reading a passage of Genesis they had chosen in a televised broadcast to Earth. And during one of the communication sessions, astronaut James Lowell joked that he had seen Santa Claus.

The first New Year in space

The first people in history to celebrate Christmas and New Year in space were three crew members of the Skylab orbital station. It happened in 1973. On the eve of the holidays, the astronauts built a homemade Christmas tree from the remains of food containers, using colored decals for decoration and additionally decorating it with a cardboard cutout in the shape of a comet.

A Christmas tree put up by the crew of the Skylab station in 1973. Source: NASA

However, despite the holidays, the astronauts did not forget about their work. On December 25, 1973, two Skylab crew members had to go into space for seven hours. Upon returning to the station, they had a Christmas dinner and fruitcake dessert, talked to their families, and unpacked presents.

The first Soviet cosmonauts to celebrate New Year in orbit were the crew members of the Salyut-6 station in 1978. They celebrated the holiday with a toast during a communication session with the control center. What exactly the astronauts drank remained a secret.

Holidays on the ISS

Since 2000, the ISS has had people on board all the time, so celebrating Christmas and New Year in space has become a regular tradition. Astronauts decorate the station and a small artificial Christmas tree for the holidays. Usually, they use ordinary plastic toys and tinsel for this purpose. However, sometimes space explorers are creative and use improvised items such as nuts and screwdrivers.
Celebrating the New Year on the ISS in 2011. Source: NASA

The main holiday on board the ISS is Christmas. Astronauts have a traditional holiday dinner (without champagne, of course), treat each other, exchange souvenirs, and greet both their families and all the inhabitants of the Earth. ISS crews also like to dress up for the holiday. Most often, they put on red Santa hats.

As for the New Year, in theory, it can be celebrated 16 times, because that’s how many turns the station makes around the Earth in a day. But usually the ISS crew celebrates it according to their local Earth time. The space explorers exchange gifts and congratulate their family and friends.
A Christmas tree on the ISS. Source: NASA

But, as always, work comes first. If there is a malfunction at the station, the celebration has to be postponed until it is fixed. During the ISS operation, there have already been several cases when astronauts were engaged in repairs or went into outer space during the holidays.

Chinese New Year

Recently, the ISS has ceased to be the only outer space object with a permanent crew. Now, people are also permanently on board the Chinese Tiangong station. Like their colleagues, the taikonauts also celebrate the New Year. Only they do it according to the lunar calendar.
Taikonauts celebrate the New Year aboard the Tiangong station. Source: CNSA

The first celebration of the Chinese New Year on board the Tiangong station took place in 2022. The taikonauts decorated the station with traditional Chinese paper cutouts, poems about the Spring Festival, and red lanterns. Afterwards, during a television broadcast, they greeted their compatriots and wished them all the best.