The winter solstice is a time of celebration for many faiths and traditions. It has a scientific basis, of course, because humans couldn’t fail to notice that it was the shortest day of the year and the longest night. That in itself isn’t anything to be happy about (especially in the days before reliable fire-making) but at least it was the bottom of the cycle and meant that days would begin to grow longer. In our family we celebrate Christmas, but whatever holiday you celebrate there’s a good chance the focus is on time spent together with family and friends. Christmas can be hard if you’re far from home. Some of us have to travel for business, or stay abroad because of work, or face a military assignment in another country. But picture what it’s like for those who aren’t even on the planet!

Quite a few space missions have been carried out during Christmastime, especially on the International Space Station where astronauts might hang stockings over one of the hatchways arched like a fireplace, eat turkey and cranberry sauce from a plastic pouch or a can, join a Christmas sing-along with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his guitar, and have video chats with their loved ones. Upside-down Christmas trees are a thing aboard the ISS because in zero gravity it keeps them out of the way. Creativity helps if you’re celebrating Christmas in space—the fourth crew of the American Skylab made a Christmas tree out of empty food cans—but a little preparation helps too. The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-103 in 1999 took Santa hats with them into space, and so have many crews since—not a big deal until you consider that every gram of weight launched into space has a cost in fuel. Obviously someone has decided that fuzzy red hats with pom poms are important to morale.

Physically, astronauts in orbit around the Earth might be only 200 – 400 kilometers from the ground, but their orbits carry them to the far side of the planet and back again. And they must feel far away from their loved ones because of the circumstances. The hazards of re-entry are a barrier that count more than actual distance, and being surrounded by a frozen vacuum while trapped inside a big tin can must seem as isolating as being on a desert island. Live video chats probably help a lot, especially at Christmas. Earlier space crews had to make do with stilted radio conversations, although the time lag from orbit isn’t too bad.

Pity the crew of Apollo 8 who spent Christmas Eve 1968 farther from home than any other humans: 377,000 kilometers away in orbit around the Moon. Talk about isolated. And cramped! Christmas on the far side of the Moon in a floating minivan is not a recipe for a wild party, though definitely historic. They were asked to broadcast a Christmas message back to Earth for the listening public and chose to share a reading from the beginning of the Book of Genesis about the creation of the universe. During that mission they also took the iconic photo of Earthrise over the Moon.

Much as it sounds like a Christmas in space is the last duty any astronaut would want to draw, two things might make it uniquely appropriate. For one, the International Space Station is a terrific example of people from various nations coming together in cooperation and camaraderie, putting aside differences and working toward a brighter future. And secondly, they have the whole universe at their feet, an incomparable view of stars, galaxies, and nebulae, but also the view that moves even the most stoic: seeing our beautiful blue planet with all its inhabitants for the single entity it is. Those two things together are perfect models for the essence of the Christmas season.

Peace on Earth. Good will toward all.


Considering the bizarre realities of Christmas in space, it’s not surprising that Christmas-themed science fiction can be unusual, too, from various quasi-scientific imaginings of Santa’s flight on Christmas Eve (including at the end of time in a story by Greg van Eekhout), to trying to make contact with aliens (“All Seated On The Ground” by Connie Willis), to a classic but sad Arthur C. Clarke story called “The Star” about how a priest on a space mission discovers that the supernova that destroyed a thriving alien civilization was the Star of Bethlehem. (That one always disturbed me, which was probably Clarke’s intent.)

Just Google “Christmas Science Fiction” and you’ll find lots of suggestions. Happy Reading!


Years ago I read a book called The Millennial Project by Marshall T. Savage. It was a brilliant, creative, and comprehensive step-by-step plan to colonize space. I’d still recommend it to our elected governments, private interests, and anyone else interested in preserving Life by seeding it beyond the confines of Earth. The book’s offspring, the Millennial Foundation, is still around (although renamed the Living Universe Foundation) but its progress has not been newsworthy and Savage is not even active with it anymore. Nonetheless, the core reasons for colonizing space and other planets remain: 1) The human population is too high—the planet can’t sustain us. 2) Human life, and all earthly life, is just too vulnerable on this single planet. Depending on which scientists you talk to, there have been anywhere from a handful to more than twenty “mass extinction events” in the history of life on Earth. The asteroid QE2 passed within six million kilometers of the Earth last Friday—not especially close, but it was as large as the asteroid that’s thought to have killed the dinosaurs. They’re out there. We should be too, before one of them strikes.

Even though I’m a big Star Trek fan, it’s a near certainty that we won’t to be able to colonize other solar systems in the foreseeable future. We night be able to make Mars more Earth-like and livable, but it will take a century or two (if you’re interested in the idea, you can’t do better than to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars books). We could also make human colonies in large bubbles orbiting the Earth, in hollowed out asteroids (after we’ve mined out their metals), or in domed cities on the Moon. Rather confining, perhaps, but then how many people now live out their lives without ever leaving a city? Maybe the “upside” of urbanization is that we’re creating a generation of potential colonists. Would people be interested in going somewhere untamed and unpredictable to live? Immigrants have been doing it for centuries.

I was really pleased to follow the exploits of Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station recently who, through the clever use of Twitter along with impressive photography skills, musicianship, and pure personality, has done more than any man since Neil Armstrong to make space exploration “cool” again. Maybe it’s time for another big push to get people interested in the idea of living somewhere “out there”. If nothing else, mining the Moon and the asteroids and moving as many people as possible to somewhere else might give our planet its one best chance to heal. And the more people go into space, the more they’ll want to go.

At the very least, they’ll gain a gift that existing astronauts always bring home with them: a unique appreciation of the jewel that is Planet Earth.