Why US astronauts are celebrating Thanksgiving early

Three American astronauts will host a Thanksgiving dinner for their three Russian crew mates aboard the International Space Station on Nov. 24 because half of the crew returns to Earth Thursday.

By , Space.com managing editor

Americans on Earth are excited about the holiday of Thanksgiving. Astronauts in space are too, but they'll hold the famous turkey day early because of some holiday travel – a Thursday trip back to Earth.

The station's three American astronauts will host a space Thanksgiving for their three Russian crewmates today (Nov. 24) – a day earlier than the actual holiday – to give them one last big meal together before half of the crew returns to Earth Thursday night.

The U.S.-Russian crew will gather together in the stations' aptly named Unity module for their Thanksgiving in space. The idea for the early celebration came from NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who will take command of the station tomorrow, NASA officials told SPACE.com.

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IN PICTURES: Holidays in Space

"I'd like to wish everyone a very happy, happy Thanksgiving," Kelly said in a holiday video message, adding that he and his crewmates were thankful to be on the station. "I'm thankful and I feel privileged that I was born and grew up in a country that could be a major contributor to something as magnificent as the International Space Station."

When it comes to a space Thanksgiving meal, astronauts have traditionally feasted on traditional holiday fare ... but with a NASA twist.

Precooked irradiated smoked turkey stands in for a hot turkey fresh out of the oven. Green beans with mushrooms, candied yams, turkey stuffing, and some sort of fruit cobbler dessert have also been popular space Thanksgiving dishes in the past. [Best Space Food of All Time]

NASA also has a recipe for space cornbread dressing available for the public to try out.

Kelly will be saying farewell to American crewmates Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker, as well as cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, when they depart the space station late Thursday on a Russian Soyuz capsule and land on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, where the local time will actually be Friday morning. The trio has been living on the space station since mid-June.

"I'm just thankful to be here and be part of this crew," Wheelock said. "It's been a tremendous experience for us."

It's somewhat unusual for a space station crew to celebrate a U.S. holiday early, but Kelly asked for some time in the schedule because the astronauts and cosmonauts will put in a full day's work Thursday when most Americans are sitting down to a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

"It's not the normal approach," NASA spokesperson Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters said. "I think they're doing it in this case to accommodate the Soyuz landing."

Wheelock, Walker and Yurchikhin plan to undock their Soyuz spacecraft from the space station at 8:22 p.m. EST (0122 GMT) Thursday – Thanksgiving night in the United States – ahead of a planned 11:46 p.m. EST (0446 Nov. 25 GMT) landing in Kazakhstan.

After landing, the returning station crew will be retrieved by a recovery team and flown to Kustanai, Kazakhstan. From there, Yurchikhin will return to Russia's Federal Space Agency headquarters in Moscow while Wheelock and Walker return to NASA's astronaut headquarters at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Wheelock and Walker should return home to the United States on Friday, Cloutier-Lemasters said.

But astronauts won't have to wait until their Houston arrival to taste their Thanksgiving turkey.

"Some Thanksgiving food will be on the NASA plane for them to eat en route home," NASA spokesman Rob Navias told SPACE.com in an e-mail.

You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik.

IN PICTURES: Holidays in Space

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