"Driving home for Christmas" - that will not be the case this year for the Dutch astronaut André Kuipers. For him, it is the opposite. He will literally fly to the end of the world and beyond, to celebrate Christmas on the International Space Station - far away from his family and his four children.
André Kuipers belongs to the second team of "Expedition 30" - that crew of the space station which will perform research on the ISS until May 2012. His PromISSe mission began on 21st December 2011 with a launch from the Russian space centre at Baikonur. He had to stay almost two days in a cramped Soyuz capsule, together with the Russian Oleg Kononenko und the American Don Pettit, before the hatch to the International Space Station was opened for all three - just in time for the Christmas celebrations.
The three had naturally brought presents for the other crew members, and the work schedule had been correspondingly modified so that the six members of the ISS crew had time to phone home to their families, to celebrate a modest Christmas on-board amongst themselves, or to watch out for Santa Claus who, with his sleigh of flying reindeers, might certainly have come within sight of the ISS!
Neither were the Flight Controllers in Houston, Huntsville, Oberpfaffenhofen, Moscow or Tokyo able to celebrate Christmas at home with their families. The numerous, complex subsystems of this huge spaceship have to be monitored around the clock In the ISS control centres to ensure they are functioning correctly and to immediately correct detected errors, if possible before the crew even becomes aware of them.
At the German Aerospace Center (DLR) this year, it was the turn of Flight Director Maksims Baklanenko and his team. He had had some intensive shift work behind him: "We had an experiment on the human immune system which had to be performed directly after the Soyuz spacecraft docked, i.e. over Christmas. We were all the more happy that André thought of us!" Kuipers had thought of a surprise for the Oberpfaffenhofen flight controllers on Christmas night: a small present was waiting for each of the team and the astronaut radioed down, together with his Christmas greetings, where the presents were to be found.
André Kuipers has also worked at the Columbus Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen as a EUROCOM after his first space flight in 2004, and so he is well acquainted with the ground crew supporting his mission. A broad spectrum of experiments is planned for his six month research period in space. The effect of zero gravity on the human body is of special interest to this graduate doctor of medicine.