Many people are separated from their family on Christmas, but this year there are only six who can say it's because they are in orbit.
Astronauts Kevin Ford, Chris Hadfield and Tom Marshburn, and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Evgeny Tarelkin and Roman Romanenko will spend the holiday about 240 miles above Earth, traveling at a speed of roughly 17,000 mph.
That's life aboard the International Space Station, where months-long stints in orbit frequently take its occupants through various holidays, including Christmas. It's a sacrifice astronauts said they are more than willing to make.
"If you keep your perspective, every day is Christmas up there," said Cady Coleman, a Houston-based NASA astronaut who spent more than five months in orbit from Dec. 16, 2010, to May 24, 2011. "As a scientist, you never know what you are going to discover next."
The space station is the world's largest orbiting laboratory and offers the chance to conduct research in near-zero gravity. At any one time, there are more than 100 experiments under way.
Hadfield, of Canada, NASA astronaut Marshburn and Romanenko lifted off from Russia on Wednesday and will join the other three. The team is expected to oversee work that includes monitoring human heart function in low gravity and a spectrometer built to detect dark matter, the invisible, mysterious glue that holds the universe together.
A constant human presence is required, not only to keep watch over the science, but to keep the station running and in good repair.
Coleman, for example, operated the station's robotic arm when it captured its first unmanned resupply ship.
"Now, it's a routine thing to capture (a ship) and attach it to the space station," she said.
The stints in orbit also help scientists gather information on how microgravity environments affect bone and muscles. Hadfield said that work is vital to come up with techniques to maintain astronaut health during any future missions to Mars and deep space.
"We're learning how to do all those things just by being there," Hadfield said during a Dec. 11 news conference hosted by the Canadian Space Agency.
During holidays, astronauts and cosmonauts typically do not work. NASA spokeswoman Gayle Frere said they share a meal and spend time communicating with their friends and families. Christmas is so popular, Frere said, that it's typically celebrated twice. Cosmonauts celebrate the Russian Orthodox Church's Christmas, which falls on Jan. 7.
Hadfield said he expects the same will happen this year. Hadfield and the Americans, Ford and Marshburn, will host the cosmonauts for a Dec. 25 meal and the cosmonauts will return the favor Jan. 7.The meal isn't a feast.
"It's not like we can go get a nice, big roast turkey or a smoked ham, but we can choose some things that are along those lines," Hadfield said. "You can have turkey. You can have dressing. You can have cornbread and mashed potatoes and corn."
Dessert might include something called "peach ambrosia," he added.
The astronauts also dress up the station in holiday decorations. Coleman said the station's manifest includes a fold-up tree and ornaments.
She said the astronauts liked to carry it with them through the station so it would appear the background during teleconferences.
There are gifts.
Coleman said she and her fellow astronauts awoke Christmas morning to find small wrapped presents of chocolate floating on tethers tied to their doors. She suspects the Russians might have left them, though she wouldn't rule out Santa Claus.
"It's just never been explained," Coleman said.
This year, there will be live music.
Hadfield will play Christmas carols on an acoustic guitar that's become part of the station's equipment. He estimates the guitar has made 62,000 orbits of Earth.
"It's the most well-traveled guitar ever," he said. "I'll play every Christmas carol I know."
As far as homesickness, Hadfield and Coleman said they were both fortunate that their missions began in December.
"I think because it was so new to be up there that the ... lonely part really didn't kick in," Coleman said.
Hadfield said he planned to celebrate Christmas with his family in Star City, Russia, before the Dec. 19 launch. The celebration, however, was conducted through a glass wall. Hadfield and his family had to be separated so he wouldn't contract a cold or the flu.
Coleman said the ability to video conference and have private cell-phone quality calls with her family from her own cabin also helped a great deal.
"Communication really brings us back down to Earth and people up to us," she said.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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