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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.

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

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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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