This morning, the Boeing Company’s CST-100 Starliner capsule launched on its first mission to the International Space Station. The aim of this uncrewed Orbital Test Flight (OFT) was to demonstrate that the spacecraft is ready to transport NASA astronauts and cargo. An instrumented mannequin named Rosie (named after the WW2 icon Rosie the Riveter, and a nod to the trailblazing women in aerospace and human spaceflight) took the place of a crew. 

Starliner is carrying hundreds of American flags, which – on their return to Earth – are due be given to staff who have worked on the project. This historic flight also carried 500 tree seeds into space.

In 1971, Apollo 14 carried tree seeds into space. They were planted back on Earth and became the famous Moon trees.

“In honor of those first space trees, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will carry the same mix of seeds on its first flight test to low Earth orbit. When the seeds return, they’ll be distributed to Boeing sites, suppliers and other stakeholders across the country, growing the first generation of Starliner trees.”

Boeing 
Starliner takes a leaf out of history, launching seeds from the same tree species that flew on Apollo 14.
Image credit: Boeing

After a successful launch, the Starliner capsule experienced “an off-nominal insertion”, which means it’s not where it should be. The capsule is in a stable orbit while NASA and Boeing review the options for continuing the mission.

Last week Blue Origin launched New Shepard NS-12 mission for a brief flight into space. The capsule carried thousands of postcards from children.

“Our first mission for the club was to collect postcards from students around the world with their hopes and dreams for the future. We’ve collected several thousand from students around the world so far. Today, we’re sending our first batch of those postcards to space on New Shepard, and then we’ll mail them back to each student stamped ‘flown in space.’ How cool is that?” 

Caitlin Dietrich, director of public relations at Blue Origin, via Space.com

The rocket also carried a plant growth experiment by University of Florida researchers Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul. They’ve been studying the effect of space flight on plants since the 90s.

“What we learned from those early experiments was certain notions of how plants adapt to space. And then we compared that with how they behave on the ground. That’s monumental, but it doesn’t tell us what happens in the transition. Essentially nowhere in the history of space biology have scientists had the opportunity to fully examine the transition from 1 to 0 and back.”

Robert Ferl, via NASA

Ferl and Paul began examining that transition period in parabolic (zero-g/’vomit comet’) flights, which offer 30-second periods of microgravity. Moving to suborbital flights gives them a more extended period of observation.

“Understanding what it takes to help plants thrive in space—as a food and oxygen source and for other needs—is crucial to any exploration initiative where the goal is a long-term habitat.”

Anna-Lisa Paul, via NASA

The Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans to spend Christmas in space in 1968. Rita Rapp prepared their food, and included her famous sugar cookies; the astronauts liked so much, they used them as space currency! They broadcast a Christmas message back to their home planet, and estimates suggest that it was watched or heard by up to a billion people.

"Christmas tree" created by Skylab 4 crewmembers
This “Christmas tree” was created by the three crewmen of the third manned Skylab mission aboard the space station in Earth orbit. Food cans were used to fashion the tree. This photograph was made from a television transmission made from a video tape recording on December 24, 1973.

The next set of astronauts to spend Christmas in space was the crew of Skylab 4, in 1973. They’d already spent Thanksgiving in orbit, and to get in the holiday spirit, they built a Christmas tree out of with food cans.

It wasn’t until 1996 that another American spent Christmas in orbit, when John Blaha celebrated onboard Mir.

In 1999, British-American Michael Foale flew on STS-103, the first and only Space Shuttle mission to fly during the Christmas holiday.

“Foale and his STS-103 crewmates gave NASA and the world a Christmas present that is still giving to the scientific community. After three consecutive days of spacewalks to make repairs and upgrades, they returned the Hubble Space Telescope to service on Christmas Day. Hubble had been in hibernation since the loss of its fourth gyroscope, designed to enable the telescope to point precisely at distant astronomical targets for scientific observations.”

Christmas in the Heavens
The crew of Expedition 46 decorated the International Space Station’s Cupola module, a 360-degree series of windows that provides a stunning view of Earth for observations, December 2015. Image credit: NASA

In 2000, the Expedition One crew spent the first Christmas on the International Space Station, and then on Christmas Day 2003, the UK Mars probe Beagle 2 landed on Mars and completely failed to phone home. The assumption was that the probe had crashed. It wasn’t found until January 2015, and an analysis in 2016 suggested that Beagle 2 may have worked for several months, but was unable to send its data back to Earth. 

“If Beagle 2 went into surface operations mode, it could have continued for some time performing the initial pre-programmed operations, happily taking data and waiting for a response from the orbiters. It turned out to be a very lonely time for the lander at the surface.” 

Dr Manish Patel, of the Open University
This image from ESA’s Mars Express shows Korolev crater, an 82-kilometre-across feature found in the northern lowlands of Mars.

At the time, the loss of Beagle 2 slightly overshadowed the success of the European Mars Express probe arriving safely in Mars orbit. Last year, to mark the 15th anniversary of the spacecraft’s orbit insertion and the beginning of its science programme, ESA released some beautiful pictures of what appears to be snow in the Korolev Crater.

The crater holds a year-round pocket of ice some 1.8 kilometres thick and is deemed to be a ‘cold trap’, or what a gardener might call a ‘frost pocket’. It’s probably not the best place to set up a Martian garden, but perhaps it will be a useful source of water?

I wish all interplanetary gardeners a Merry Christmas and Space on Earth, and GoffW will return in the New Year!