Exclusive: Colonel Ford tells AeroTime about commanding the ISS at Christmas
AeroTime CEO, Richard Stephenson, spoke to International Space Station Expedition Commander, Colonel Kevin A Ford about life onboard and his preparations for playing Father Christmas for his fellow astronauts and cosmonauts. He was the ISS Commander on Christmas Day 2012.
“A year in advance of flying, you know you will be up there on Christmas Day and an immense amount of planning goes into that” Colonel Ford tells me.
“There are no squeaky floorboards in space, floating makes it easier to deliver the stockings”
I feel slightly awkward asking such a seasoned and decorated astronaut about whether you can watch Father Christmas from space, but Kevin Ford is generous with his time and responds to my questions with a smile that shows his pride and dedication to the space mission.
“He comes from the North Pole of course and we don't quite go far enough to see the North Pole. So, we see him coming over the horizon as we go. He has to go back to the North Pole and reload the sleigh and then go to all those countries just in time for the midnight before the morning time zone comes, but he didn't come up to our altitude.”
You cannot help but warm to the Colonel quickly and by this point, I knew this was going to be a good (and fun) interview.
So, what is Christmas like in space?
The good news is that there are gifts in space! “Lots of planning goes into it” says Kevin, “the Astronaut Support Office at NASA gets in touch with family members and there will be a bag up there when you arrive that says ‘do not open until Christmas’.”
“I will say that all the way up to Christmas Eve on board, unless you're watching the calendar, the day to day life onboard doesn't change until Christmas Day and they do give us Christmas Day off. For the Russian segment guys their Christmas day doesn't come until January, so they might work a normal schedule. There might be a few things we have to do that might be like a daily task that's finally due or something like that, but otherwise we had most of the day off to just hang out and eat and maybe email friends make some phone calls from Space Station. Look out at the world from the cupola on Christmas Day and I did appreciate that everybody down there is celebrating in a special way. They did give us give us a holiday, that's for sure.”
Does anything look different on Christmas Day?
“You couldn't make out any Christmas lights or anything of that sort from that altitude of space. I would say that the planet looks just about same on Christmas day. But I guess you do have that feeling that everybody down there is having a day off and the hustle and bustle isn't going on, the freeways are probably clearer. But we have normal staff inside Mission Control, supporting us from the ground. So flight director and capsule communicator and all the flight controllers are working that day. And so we appreciate that they're spending their Christmas dedicated to space station work. So we didn't get to go home at night, of course, but we do appreciate that we're in a special place doing a special thing for the planet. And when I was up there, I happened to be the Commander on Christmas Day. One of the points I made was that we like to think that we are giving a gift to future generations by doing science and research and learning more about the planet and the universe we live in. So, it was a special day and none of us at all felt sad. On Christmas day, we all had a joyous day in anticipation of coming back to the planet to be with family in the future.”
Ford celebrating Christmas on the orbital laboratory on December 25, 2012
Is this about giving something special to future generations? Is that the real focus of your legacy of your time in space?
“Yes. What we learn now and the research we do now, we probably won't learn anything today that will be useful a week from today, but we are learning things today that that will be useful, if nothing else to help us understand the kinds of science we can do, to get some ideas for possibilities in medicine and all kinds of the physical sciences that look different in space, whether it be fire or hydrostatics or the way viruses reproduce or that sort of thing to bone studies, medical studies and these sorts of things. So, that's what we're up there for and we continue those experiments right through Christmas. Usually we don't have to interact with them on Christmas Day. Hopefully we're not changing any fuel tanks out or doing any special science with a university or something real time on that day, we're just celebrating but we do feel like that's the gift we're giving back.”
And what about the food? Is there a turkey?
“We make it ourselves. There are things like date pudding and special candy. Everyone picks out their favourite space food and save it for that day. It might be beef brisket of meatloaf. There are some seasonal things you might be able to find, like cranberries – and maybe a special box of chocolates.”
Want did you miss being on the ISS on Christmas Day?
“Well, you’re not there for everyone's festivities. You would miss the time off with family and friends. We had a Canadian onboard who was missing the winter weather. It is the same things you miss all the time, but at Christmas you realise that the family is at home and relaxing and enjoying the holidays and it is unfortunate you can’t be there. We sang a few songs, including ‘I’ll be home for Christmas but only in my dreams’ to Mission Control on that day. Truly we were home, but it was only in our dreams.”
"I had been there since October and a new crew arrived on December 21 and they brought some nice Christmas gifts with them. They brought us each a book and it was almost like they were Santa Claus there!”
And what is the best thing about being there on Christmas Day?
“It’s a little bit like being deployed for military troops. Youa re away from home but you are taking the point and it is your turn to do something amazing. It is just not possible to come home for Christmas and that sacrifice is a pretty satisfying thing to do and I was proud to be up there and I much enjoyed celebrating that day, making phone calls home and meeting with the crew again, talking about what was going on back home. It was fun to share all of that and it was a special thing to do and I am happy that I was there at Christmas time. I was the commander so I had to sneak into people’s lockers as our Astronaut support group had put stockings onboard for all the astronauts and cosmonauts, so I played Santa Claus in the middle of the night and found these stocking and hung them in our ‘node one’ which was our eating and meeting room onboard the space station so when they woke up in the morning they all had stockings hanging over the hatchet way. It is easier to be quiet in space because there are no footsteps, no squeaking floors or anything, you can float to where you need to float and not make much noise. There are no chimneys to come down!”
This is how Expedition 66 participate Christmas in Space in 2021
The closest I have ever come to space was seeing the ‘northern lights’ from the Arctic Circle on an expedition a few years ago. I explained the experience I had, wondering around in the frozen wastelands of the Arctic and suddenly being confronted with a green dancing sky. It moved me. I asked Kevin whether it was a truly ‘spiritual’ experience being in space at such an important time of the year?
Yes, when you saw the northern lights and it moved you, there are many reasons why it did, but one of them is that you realize that this is out there all the time. This is the universe we live in and whether you see them or not, those Aurora's are happening on the planet and things are happening in the universe that are bigger than us. Much, much, much bigger than us. And when you get out in the space station, you fly around the planet once every 90 minutes. You see the continents pass below you. And the next thing you know, you go back to the window, and there's the same content. You don't even realize that you’ve gone around because you're working hard. You're looking at a universe that doesn't really care that we're in it. Our Earth cares that we're in it, and how we interact with it, but the universe itself is almost oblivious to the fact that humans are doing our thing. So, it is a spiritual experience just being in space anyway, and seeing how small the earth is and that it’s really just a little rock going around the sun and we're in a huge spacecraft but relatively speaking a tiny spacecraft orbiting it.
So you already feel this actual spiritual awareness and I think the one nice thing about Christmas is it does give you more time to reflect and think about your place here and, of course, we're from different backgrounds, maybe religious upbringing, but everybody has a perspective and I have always said, whatever you feel you probably feel it stronger in space. You’re up there to really see the big picture, if you will, of the planet below. When you fly over the Korea’s you can see North Korea and South Korea in a glance. You can see the difference between the two and you realize there's so many earthly things going on down here. But, the universe isn't really impacted by us and it is going to move on and do its thing at its own speed. That's a bit spiritual in itself.”
I realised that I could speak to Kevin for many hours. He moved between my random string of questions with ease and was just as comfortable talking about the profound impact that his time in space clearly had, as he was the lighthearted questions about Santa. ‘Whatever you feel, you probably feel it stronger in space’ is a line that will stay with me.
I couldn’t resist my next line though. “I guess the only thing that's less in space is your weight, which is something I could use help with?”
Kevin laughed but again accepted the challenge to educate me, “They do measure our weight, it's reflected in our mass. So even though we don't have physical force weight, we still do have a body mass and they check it once in a while. In the Russian segment, we have a machine where you oscillate up and down, and the frequency of your oscillation gives away your body mass. So, if you have more mass, you start to oscillate slower and they can tell you're gaining. They can measure it very, very precisely. But a really nice thing is you really cannot overeat in space. So as much as I tried, I always had to try to force myself to eat more. And that barely kept my weight and so one of the perks of being in space is you can eat all you want and you won't gain weight and I don't know why that is.”
We had time for a couple more questions and my other half had asked me earlier in the day if there is a time zone in space? I didn’t know the answer so took this opportunity to ask the expert, hoping that is would score me points when I got home.
“It’s Greenwich Mean Time” Kevin says. “That's what we set our clocks on board, so all based on the meantime in Greenwich, England. We get up every day about 06:00 or 06:30 and we stop talking to control about 21:30 at night all based on Greenwich Mean Time. So, for example, mission control is working while the astronauts are awake. They come in to work in Houston [Texas] about 01:00 local time to work with astronauts.”
But there is some more technical information that Kevin wants to explain.
“Now I will say that space-based operations don’t really respect Greenwich Mean Time. So, when we launch rockets or rendezvous spacecraft or deorbit and that sort of thing, that has nothing to do with anybody's watches but that has to do with our orientation with respect to the stars and the earth, then decisions are made based on sunrise and sunset, but they don't respect our sleep cycles, that is for sure. So, sometimes we have to violate our normal day to make things happen.”
I suddenly wonder about New Year. Do they celebrate that as the fireworks start at the London Eye?
“We had Russians and a Canadian onboard, so we actually celebrated at Russian midnight from Moscow time, and then we did the same thing for East Coast time.”
It sounds like a very practical time zone in space.
I’m feeling conscious that we are over-running, but Kevin is still happy to answer more questions. I know he has to leave soon as he has visiting training cosmonauts coming to dinner – a sign of the lifelong space family he is undoubtedly a father figure of – but I take the opportunity and go for another ‘last’ question.
Will you be raising a toast to your colleagues who are on the International Space Station at some point during Christmas Day?
“We will” Kevin responded without hesitation. “I might even get a call from Tom Marshburn onboard so I'll keep my phone on just in case. He can say hey, you were up here with me nine years ago and we can talk about what's going on. He'll probably have to hang the stockings himself this time.”
It’s clear from my time with Colonel Ford that the space mission is more than just an occupation or profession for him. It’s life. It’s commitment. It’s dedication; the kind of which you rarely see. I asked him if he had his choice of anywhere on or off planet Earth to spend Christmas this year, where would he choose? He gave the right answer, of course. “At home with my family.” While I don’t doubt he means it, I can’t help but feel that Colonel Ford would do anything to be gazing down on us from his orbit at 408km above the Earth. And I know he would love to hang those stockings in space just one more time.
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