Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Write...Edit...Publish : and a pair of empty shoes

Okay, so this is one of the last posts for the year 2015, which seems to have zoomed past faster than I could say Write…Edit…Publish, but it’s also a first.  And not in a good way.  I am travelling and cannot participate in one of my  favourite blogfests.  The first time that I am a no-show at WEP – just gutted! This post is a bloggish version of a pair of empty shoes, you know, like that march in Paris recently before the climate conference. I can't be here, but hey, here I am, right over here at WEP! 

This month it's all about Holiday Celebrations Out of This World, writing up Sci-Fi flashes are some of the coolest bloggers, among them Denise and Yolanda.  Go visit them and check out the entries, and jump in with your own if you like. Judging the writing contest will be the Ninja Captain of the blogosphere, Alex J Cavanaugh, the Sci-Fi maestro and best-selling author of the Cassa series.

My posts for WEP have usually been flash or poetry, all entirely imaginary. This time, to mark my absence, I am scheduling a different post, factual, no-nonsense non-fiction  - the empty shoes of my imagination alongside the WEP-ers.

Earthrise on Christmas 1968

Celebrations Earthly and unEarthly; and the six honest serving men on the subject

Traditionally, holidays were just that – holy days, community based religious or social events, rooted at a particular place, even to specific features like rivers or beaches.   Libations in the Ganges, for example, form a major part of some Indian ones, going sailing on the Nile is part of the Egyptian Sham-el-Nessim, bar-be-ques on the beach, I am told, is a Christmas tradition in Australia.

So. How to slip them off Earth and seamlessly into a different planet? Should the observances be tied to the time zone of the origins or the one where the celebrations are?  What happens if the merry-makers are transiting through several time zones during the day?  Most festivals stem from the practices of ancient agrarian societies, harvest or sowing, seasonal cusps, burial or other death rituals, ancestor worship. How to carry these over to places with entirely different references for time? Celebrate a festival based on the lunar calendar on Jupiter say, which has not one but 63 moons? Mind-boggling or what?

Where off Earth are earthly festivals celebrated?

But living on Jupiter is not something we must grapple with right this minute. As of now, the only home humanity has apart from Earth, is the International Space Station (ISS).  And that is where our festivals are celebrated off-planet, albeit with some nifty footwork to overcome the problems of co-ordinates.  

The ISS hurtles through space at roughly 5 miles a second orbiting the earth, spinning furiously on its own axis every 45 minutes.  This moving and shaking means the ISS experiences several sunrises or sunsets in 24 hours.   Day and night are very different in space - it’s a timekeeper’s nightmare out there! So when exactly is it Thanksgiving or Christmas out in space?  This is resolved by locking the ISS to Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) which is matched to GMT. Thus any celebration/festival happens on the ISS at the same time as it happens on Earth.

Right, time issues sorted, but then there are plenty others to fix.  The space station is international, there are several countries which send people up there, and not everyone celebrates the same festivals.  Another minefield to negotiate!  But Christmas is more or less a constant on the holiday calendar for the American crew members.  To avoid any confusion, the astronauts are permitted 8 holidays, which must be chosen well before their mission. Spontaneity is simply not an option up in space. 

Not just the delivery of the traditional roast turkey has to be done months in advance, but also the food has a tendency to float up, up and away from trays. Zero-gravity makes no concessions for Christmas, it’s never on holiday. Solution? Velcro!  A strip of that ubiquitous earthly fastening keeps the food and cutlery in their places. 

Source: BBC

However, from what I hear, the food isn’t a patch on what is normally consumed. Space food can’t match home cooking back on Earth. They might get the traditional items but much of it is dehydrated and has to be reconstituted before it can be eaten.  Take a shufti at these astronauts celebrating Thanksgiving: 

The greatest bummer? No liquor! The ISS doesn’t permit a bar.  Apparently the plumbing on the station can’t cope with alcohol.  So to go with the turkey, there’s only plain water, which is purified from the astronauts’ own, ahem, bodily fluids.  Yikes! Give me a regular roast and a glass of wine any day.

How long’s this party been going on anyways?

The earliest recorded Christmas goes back to 336 A.D, partly because birthdays of even saints were not given much importance those days.  Majorly because the early Christians were persecuted and hounded for their faith.  Christianity only became widely accepted after Roman Emperor Constantine declared it as the state religion in the 4th century.  So the guesstimate is that Christmas has been celebrated on Earth for almost 1700 years, pretty long time!

And off Earth?  That’s easier to pinpoint.  During the Apollo Mission 8 in 1968, the astronauts marked Christmas from the lunar orbit, by reading extempore from the Bible, which was broadcast live here on Earth.  Most people found it powerful and moving, but an atheist took NASA to court for including religion in a government programme.  The court ruled that the government had no jurisdiction over something that happened in lunar orbit and threw the case out!

The ISS has been continuously manned from 2000 onward, so there have been crew members up in space celebrating Christmas for 15 years. It has three permanent crew at all times.   The US space shuttle can take up another 7, the Russian ship sends up 2 cosmonauts at a time.  So theoretically a max of 10 people.  Not much of a party at the best of times, three or more than three, still definitely company up there.

As of now, there are 6 people up in the ISS. I don’t think any of them is coming home for Christmas. It’s strange, isn’t it? Millions of us travel back to be with our families to celebrate our individual festivals; the people who can’t - the defence forces, the emergency services, the overseas workers, the optionless minority for whatever reason, we commiserate with them.   I wonder how many of us remember the space-going folks at this time? The more I think of them, the isolation and endurance and motivation, the more I am amazed at their sheer monumental grit.

The astronauts insist that it’s special, calling family from space; to see the earth hanging like a sparkly blue bauble in a black sky.  It probably is.  I mean, if you have to be away on a special day, then the ISS is probably as cool as it gets.  But I’d rather be here on this planet with the family, digging into a thoroughly un-reconstituted bird without having to resort to Velcro, know what I mean? 

Signing off now, with my feet planted firmly on Earth, and armfuls of good wishes to you all for a happy, peaceful and uberscrumptious holiday season and an equally fun 2016!



  1. This was intriguing. Thank you so much.
    I am pretty certain that how ever far our species wanders we will find room for holidays. Old ones for the memories, and new ones too.

  2. Love this Nila, so informative, but like you, I prefer my feet here on earth. They are hearty souls who travel to such a small precarious place for science, holiday or not! Where ever you may be, thanks for participating in the WEP Holiday Celebrations that are out of this world. This is definitely out of this world and while not sci-fi - it is science and history, holiday related, and a learning lesson, wonderful.

    Thanks for participating, we so love the support!

    Wishing you and yours a very Merry Holiday season and a prosperous and peace-filled New Year!

  3. Well, Nila, thank you for this entry which I know has been difficult for you being on the road! Glad you just couldn't help yourself.

    I loved this non-fiction account of Christmas, incorporating the ISS. Things we just don't think about much. I heard a couple of astronauts from there parachuted back to earth last week, leaving the other there to drink recycled p*s@. I'll bet they relish real food when they return to earth. But there are plenty of people on earth who will be eating dirt this Christmas. Those poor refugees who're struggling to find a bite for their children. So so sad. Sorry. Your story took me along those lines. I just wish we could sort ourselves so everyone could be warm and comfortable with full bellies at this holiday season and always. Dreamer...

    Happy travels, Nila!
    Merry Christmas and a fabulous 2016 to you and yours!

    Denise :-)

  4. Interesting information about Christmas, holiday celebrations and the Space Station. Almost feel it would be not worth it to eat the dehydrated holiday meals. I think it would make one very reflective looking back at their home planet from space. I wish all of Earth's astronauts Happy Holidays!

  5. That was really unique and very interesting! They threw out the case from the atheist - good. Really enjoyed this.

  6. Hi Nila - what a great post .. and having watched the British astronaut, American and Russian ones too dock yesterday - your post really sums it up. Then the food - and thoughts - well you have to be driven and passionate about becoming an astronaut - so I guess those things you don't worry about - you get on with the job.

    I would far rather be down here with some delicious roast, fresh vegetables et al and a glass of vino ... cheers Hilary

    1. Congratulations on coming 2nd in the contest - great recognition ... happy travelling - Hilary

    2. Congratulations on coming 2nd in the contest - great recognition ... happy travelling - Hilary

  7. Very informative post. Thank you.

  8. What beautiful writing. It is all interesting information, and an interesting video inclusion, too. I agree you're onto something. My wish is that all is right out there. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

  9. out there I will not go
    between the stars to and fro
    only on this earth I'll trod
    setting there writing my blog

  10. Fascinating. This was a unique and interesting take on the prompt Nila. Loved the info. Hmm, turkey just isn't as good unless you can smell it cooking all day long. Packaged food velcoreled down isn't appetizing.

    Have a safe and enjoyable trip Nila.

  11. Enjoyed your post, I like stories about space stations, especially large ones. Hope your travels are safe and that you have a enjoyable holiday with your family. We visited at NASA in Florida and saw how difficult various functions can be without gravity. . .

  12. Hello Nila
    Interesting. I'm glad my bird isn't reconstituted either. As far as Christmas goes, one could argue that it is far older since in truth, the catholic church just embraced pagan celebrations and renamed them. But that's a discussion for another day. Have a Merry Christmas.

  13. Congratulations. I am so glad that Alex selected this intriguing work for a prize.

  14. Congratulations on placing second in the WEPFF challenge, Nila!
    Such an informative piece...and a unique and clever interpretation of the theme: "Holiday Celebrations that are out of this world".
    I learned a lot from your post. Thank you.
    Have a wonderful Christmas and Best Wishes for 2016!

  15. Congratulations on being the runner up winner. Well deserved.

  16. Thank you all! I am beyond moved to have this entry picked as a winner!