Sometimes it just isn't possible to get home for the holidays. Say, for instance, that you're an astronaut on the International Space Station and Christmas falls in the middle of your six-month mission. Thrilled as you are to be living and working in space, you'd probably wish you could fly home long enough to carve a turkey and open presents with your loved ones.
That situation has been a reality for many astronauts and cosmonauts, and the Operational Psychology Group does everything it can to ease the homesickness.
"Communication, keeping the families connected — that's our highest priority," said Operational Psychology Group Lead Gabrielle Avina with Wyle Labs.
The team, part of Johnson Space Center's Behavioral Health and Performance Space Medicine Group, strives to make space feel more like home for long-duration crew members. The tools in the team's belt include family videoconferences, online news updates and uplinks of the latest movies, just to name a few.
Every so often, in addition to the virtual visits and electronic entertainment, the Operational Psychology Group gets to send up more tangible reminders of home: crew care packages. These special deliveries, which arrive on space shuttles and Russian Progress spacecraft, contain items like pictures, snack foods and handwritten cards and letters.
Care packages take on extra significance around the holidays, when they often contain festive, personalized Christmas stockings for each crew member.
Nancy "Tad" Young, administrative associate with the group, said that this tradition began in 1989 in the Krug (now Wyle) Softgoods Lab. The stockings were made from Nomex, a colorful and fire-resistant fabric, but the team members knew they needed a little something extra.
"I was asked to paint on them with flight-approved Sharpie markers," said Young, who has added her artistic flair to the stockings ever since. She creates a drawing on paper — trying not to duplicate any past designs — then paints it on a stocking and adds the crew member's name in English or Russian.
While the stockings are certainly keepsakes, it just wouldn't be right to send them up to space empty. The Group stuffs them with small treats and gifts, including items from the astronauts' families, adds a Velcro closure and sends them up on the flight closest to Christmas. STS-116 will do the honors this year.
Astronauts and cosmonauts also deck the "halls" of the space station with a custom-designed Nomex Christmas tree, which was delivered by STS-112 and is reused each year.
Young said she enjoys being a part of these unique traditions.
"The crew members are away from their families at holiday time," she said, "and it just tickles me to think that the personalized stockings I paint could possibly bring a little smile."
The gifts may arrive through an airlock instead of a chimney, but the spirit remains the same. The same present-opening rules apply, too.
"We put a note on them that says 'Don't open till Christmas,'" said Avina. "Hopefully they won't peek."