This story appears in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Former astronaut Scott Kelly has spent every American holiday in space, except St. Patrick’s Day. His last mission aboard the International Space Station kept him in orbit from late March 2015 to early March 2016 as part of a study on the biological effects on the human body of long durations in space, in anticipation of a mission to Mars. But he returned to Earth just shy of a full year. The mission was one of four stretches Kelly spent in orbit between 1999 and 2016.
Time passes at a strange rate in space. A “day” is hard to define when you’re circling the entire world every 90 minutes. Most 24-hour periods look alike. “The days are pretty routine,” says Kelly, a flight engineer and mission commander whose new book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, recalls his 520 cumulative days spent in space. With nowhere to go and little time for genuine leisure, one’s primary entertainment is often simply watching the Earth go by.
But crews break from the routine around big holidays—at least long enough to share some thoughts or a toast (of juice, from a pouch). On Thanksgiving in 2015, the Americans celebrated with turkey cold cuts. One year on Christmas Eve, Kelly tweeted a photo he’d taken of the Earth (above). Country-specific holidays, such as Columbus Day in the United States, tend to pass unnoticed. With crew from U.S., Russian, Italian, Japanese, and British space agencies present, there’d be too many to observe.
There is one exception, though. “New Year’s Eve is a bigger holiday than Christmas on the space station, because it’s celebrated by all nations on the same day,” Kelly says. He remembers looking down and seeing fireworks on Earth, just tiny little specks of light.