Thanksgiving in space is a little different from spending the holiday on the ground. The turkey is thermo-stabilized and served in plastic tubs. The pumpkin bread comes in bite-size portions, so that crumbs don’t scatter every which way in zero gravity. Sides like broccoli au gratin and potato patties are served in tight pouches or easy-to-open cans. And there’s no chance to finish off the meal with a decent slice of apple or pumpkin pie—at least not back when I was an astronaut. The packaged versions just didn’t cut it.
I was one of the first astronauts to spend two Thanksgivings in space—the first on the orbiter Discovery in November 1989, and then in November 1991 on Atlantis. That first mission, I think the whole crew felt a little strange about having the feast so far from our families. The timing of our flight was just the luck of the draw.
Everything on our mission was organized to the minute. As soon as we entered orbit, we flipped ahead in our schedules to find out when we were due to eat Thanksgiving dinner. From that point on, the meal was our major point of reference. We plotted how to get through our daily tasks and experiments more efficiently so as to allow adequate time to prepare the feast.
When the time finally arrived, we all gathered on the Discovery’s mid-deck. It was unusual for all of us to be in the same place for a meal. 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. 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. I remembered that when I was growing up, my dad would spend the bulk of the day sharpening the carving knife. He believed that the person carving the turkey should be able to produce perfect slices without any effort. I’m not sure what his opinions were on a turkey that needs to be revived with water before it goes into the convection oven.
“This is the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had,” crew member Kathy “KT” Thornton declared when we’d finished. It was doubtful that she was such a big fan of cranberry sauce eaten out of plastic tubs. But 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.