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Fourth of July Holidays in Space


John Uri |
June 29, 2022

JSC 60th anniversary banner

Sixty years ago, to welcome NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now Johnson Space Center, the city of Houston threw a Texas-sized Fourth of July celebration. The seven Mercury astronauts featured prominently in that Independence Day celebration in July 1962. Astronauts didn’t spend a Fourth of July holiday in space until 1982, when they received a presidential welcome home celebration. As spaceflights became longer and more frequent, culminating with continuous occupation of the International Space Station, more and more astronauts began spending their Fourth of July holidays in orbit. The celebrations evolved over time, with each honoring the holiday in a unique way.

Back on Earth, the close relationship between Houston and the space center has endured over the decades. The city officially adopted the nickname “Space City U.S.A.” in 1967. This year, as Johnson marks its 60th anniversary, the center plays a prominent role in Houston’s annual signature Fourth of July festivities. More on that immediately below.

Freedom Over Texas: July 4, 2022

Banner for the Freedom Over Texas celebration. Image courtesy of Houstontx.gov
Image courtesy of Houstontx.gov

As this year marks the 60th anniversary of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Shell Freedom Over Texas has partnered with the center to bring an exclusive Space City Experience to the city’s signature Independence Day event. Visitors to the Johnson exhibit space will see depicting the space agency’s storied history and upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond.

Make plans to visit Freedom Over Texas on Monday, July 4, to experience (in addition to the fireworks) the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, wheel model; Antarctic meteorite display; spacesuit; and Robonaut; among other fan favorites. Explore the next giant leap here in Space City!

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And now, our story continues ...

Left: Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, his wife Louise, and their two daughters ride in the Fourth of July motorcade. Right: The Mercury 7 astronauts and other NASA dignitaries honored at the Fourth of July barbecue as employees and their families look on. 
Left: Mercury astronaut Alan B. Shepard, his wife Louise, and their two daughters ride in the Fourth of July motorcade. Right: The Mercury 7 astronauts and other NASA dignitaries honored at the Fourth of July barbecue as employees and their families look on.

On July 4, 1962, 36 open convertibles carried MSC officials and the Mercury 7 astronauts through downtown Houston’s streets as thousands of people cheered them on. A reception followed at the Sam Houston Coliseum, where Houston Mayor Lewis W. Cutrer and other dignitaries welcomed MSC Director Robert R. Gilruth and MSC employees and their families, many of whom had recently relocated from Virginia, to a Texas-style barbecue and entertainment. At the time, MSC still operated out of leased facilities throughout southeast Houston while construction began on the new campus on the north shore of Clear Lake. President John F. Kennedy — whose commitment to a Moon landing mission in May 1961 began a chain of events that, five months later, led NASA to select Houston as the site for the new space center — visited the temporary MSC facilities in September 1962. During that same trip, President Kennedy recommitted the nation to the Moon landing in his famous speech at Rice University.

July 4, 1982 — a tale of three orbiters. Left: Space Shuttle Columbia makes a touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California to end the STS-4 mission. Middle: With Space Shuttle Enterprise as a backdrop, President Ronald W. Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and NASA Administrator James M. Beggs welcome home STS-4 astronauts Thomas K. “TK” Mattingly and Henry W. Hartsfield. Right: Space Shuttle Challenger departs Edwards AFB atop its Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on its way to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credits: NASA    
July 4, 1982 — a tale of three orbiters. Left: Space Shuttle Columbia makes a touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California to end the STS-4 mission. Middle: With Space Shuttle Enterprise as a backdrop, President Ronald W. Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan, and NASA Administrator James M. Beggs welcome home STS-4 astronauts Thomas K. “TK” Mattingly and Henry W. Hartsfield. Right: Space Shuttle Challenger departs Edwards AFB atop its Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on its way to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credits: NASA

For the first 20 years of human spaceflight, no astronaut had spent a Fourth of July in space. That all changed with the STS-4 mission. On July 4, 1982, on the final day of their mission, astronauts Thomas K. ‘TK’ Mattingly and Henry W. “Hank” Hartsfield guided Space Shuttle Columbia to its first concrete runway landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. President Ronald W. Reagan, who two years later instructed NASA to develop a space station, and First Lady Nancy Reagan greeted Mattingly and Hartsfield as they disembarked from Columbia. Shortly thereafter, the president led a celebration in front of Enterprise, saying, “TK and Hank, you’ve just given the American people a Fourth of July present to remember.”

To cap off the event attended by 45,000 people and broadcast on television, Reagan gave the signal for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft carrying Challenger, NASA’s newest space shuttle orbiter, to take off to begin its transcontinental ferry flight to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Left: The STS-50 crew in July 1992. Right: The international STS-71 crew in July 1995. Credits: NASA  
Left: The STS-50 crew in July 1992. Right: The international STS-71 crew in July 1995. Credits: NASA

Ten years passed before another crew celebrated the Fourth of July holiday in space. The seven astronauts of STS-50 had completed about half of their 14-day USML-1 mission on July 4, 1992, but the busy pace of the science flight allowed little time for celebrations. Three years later, 10 people orbited Earth during the historic STS-71 first shuttle-docking mission to the Mir space station. In fact, on July 4, 1995, Space Shuttle Atlantis undocked from Mir, returning NASA astronaut Norman E. Thagard and his two Russian cosmonaut colleagues from a three-month mission aboard Mir. By coincidence, for shuttle crew members Bonnie J. Dunbar and Ellen S. Baker, this marked their second Fourth of July in space, as they both served on the STS-50 crew three years earlier. The day’s undocking activities left little time for celebrating, although mission control played “America the Beautiful” as the wake-up song that morning. To satisfy Thagard’s request, following their landing at Kennedy, ground teams treated him and his colleagues to some belated Fourth-of-July fare of hot dogs, hamburgers, and hot-fudge sundaes.

July 4, 1996. Left: Shannon W. Lucid aboard the Russian space station Mir. Right: Susan J. Helms in the Spacelab module during the STS-78 mission. Credits: NASA  
July 4, 1996. Left: Shannon W. Lucid aboard the Russian space station Mir. Right: Susan J. Helms in the Spacelab module during the STS-78 mission. Credits: NASA

Following Thagard, six other NASA astronauts completed long-duration missions aboard Mir. From March to September 1996, Shannon W. Lucid spent six months aboard the Russian station and as the lone American on the Mir 21 crew. She celebrated the Fourth of July by wearing distinctive Stars-and-Stripes socks. Elsewhere in low-Earth orbit, with much of their 17-day Life and Microgravity Sciences mission behind them, the international crew of STS-78 celebrated the Fourth of July holiday aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. By sheer coincidence, astronaut Susan J. Helms wore Stars-and-Stripes socks identical to Lucid’s.

July 4, 1997. Left: C. Michael Foale aboard the Russian space station Mir. Right: The STS-94 crew aboard Columbia. Credits: NASA  
July 4, 1997. Left: C. Michael Foale aboard the Russian space station Mir. Right: The STS-94 crew aboard Columbia. Credits: NASA

In 1997, C. Michael Foale took his turn as the resident NASA astronaut aboard Mir. On June 25, a Progress cargo vehicle collided with the Russian station, depressurizing its Spektr module — the one Foale used as sleeping quarters and as a laboratory. On July 4, Foale and his two cosmonaut colleagues, still dealing with the accident’s aftermath and preparing to receive a new cargo craft with critical supplies, did not have time for celebrations. Foale spoke with NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, who called to check on his status and wish him a happy holiday. Concurrently, the all-NASA astronaut crew of STS-94 also spent July 4, 1997, in space during the Microgravity Science Laboratory mission aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. With eight NASA astronauts in orbit, although aboard two spacecraft, this year still holds the record as the largest number of Americans off the planet on a Fourth of July.

Left: July 4, 2001. Expedition 2 crew members NASA astronauts Susan J. Helms, left, and James S. Voss. Middle: July 4, 2006. The crew of STS-121 wave American (and one German) flags as they depart crew quarters for their Fourth of July launch. Right: July 4, 2010. NASA astronauts Douglas H. Wheelock, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, and Shannon Walker of Expedition 24. Credits: NASA    
Left: July 4, 2001. Expedition 2 crew members NASA astronauts Susan J. Helms, left, and James S. Voss. Middle: July 4, 2006. The crew of STS-121 wave American (and one German) flags as they depart crew quarters for their Fourth of July launch. Right: July 4, 2010. NASA astronauts Douglas H. Wheelock, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, and Shannon Walker of Expedition 24. Credits: NASA

The start of continuous human occupancy aboard the International Space Station in November 2000 has meant that every year since, at least one American astronaut has spent the Fourth of July holiday in space. James S. Voss and Susan J. Helms of Expedition 2, the first NASA astronauts to spend the Fourth of July aboard the space station in July 2001, sent an “out-of-this-world” birthday message to America, played during “A Capitol Fourth” celebration in Washington, D.C. For Helms, this marked her second July 4 spent in space in five years. For each of the next eight years, crew rotations and other factors resulted in only one NASA astronaut residing aboard the space station during the Fourth of July holiday. Celebrations tended to be low key, but the entire crew, regardless of nationality, had the day off from regular duties. July 4, 2006, marked the first — and so far only — time that an American crewed spacecraft launched on Independence Day, the liftoff like a giant birthday candle. As they left crew quarters for the ride to the launch pad, the seven-member crew of STS-121 waved flags, six American (and one German for the ESA, or European Space Agency, astronaut). In 2010, Expedition 24 marked the first time that three NASA astronauts, Douglas H. Wheelock, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, and Shannon Walker, celebrated the Fourth of July aboard the space station. Wheelock marked the holiday by posting a message on social media about a Congressional Medal of Honor belonging to a soldier killed in action in Vietnam that he took to space.

July 4, 2013. Left: Expedition 36 astronaut Christopher J. Cassidy wears a T-shirt from the Four on the Fourth race in York, Maine. Right: Fellow Expedition 36 astronaut Karen L. Nyberg displays her Fourth of July creation of a cookie she iced in the colors of the American flag. Credits: NASA  
July 4, 2013. Left: Expedition 36 astronaut Christopher J. Cassidy wears a T-shirt from the Four on the Fourth race in York, Maine. Right: Fellow Expedition 36 astronaut Karen L. Nyberg displays her Fourth of July creation of a cookie she iced in the colors of the American flag. Credits: NASA

For Independence Day 2013, Expedition 36 astronaut Christopher J. Cassidy chose to run in the Four on the 4th road race in his home town of York, Maine. The fact that he lived and worked aboard the space station did not stop him from participating. Wearing the race’s T-shirt, he videotaped a message for the runners in York and ran on the station’s treadmill, watching a video of the previous year’s race. At the end of the video message, Cassidy encouraged everyone to “celebrate our nation’s birthday with family and friends.” Cassidy and fellow Expedition 36 astronaut Karen L. Nyberg celebrated Independence Day by icing cookies in the colors of the American flag.

Left: July 4, 2015. NASA astronaut Scott J. Kelly records a Fourth of July message during Expedition 44. Right: July 4, 2017. During Expedition 52, NASA astronauts Jack D. Fischer and Peggy A. Whitson show off their patriotic outfits. Credits: NASA  
Left: July 4, 2015. NASA astronaut Scott J. Kelly records a Fourth of July message during Expedition 44. Right: July 4, 2017. During Expedition 52, NASA astronauts Jack D. Fischer and Peggy A. Whitson show off their patriotic outfits. Credits: NASA

On July 4, 2015, NASA astronaut Scott J. Kelly, in the fourth month of his nearly one-year mission aboard the space station, recorded a Fourth of July message for Earthbound viewers. He wished everyone a Happy Independence Day and hoped that he would be able to see some of the fireworks around the country from his lofty perch (orbital mechanics permitting). As crew size aboard the space station increased and crew rotations changed, NASA astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams, celebrating his second Fourth of July on orbit during Expedition 48, holds the distinction as the last American to spend Independence Day alone in space on July 4, 2016. The following year, Expedition 52 astronauts Jack D. Fischer and Peggy A. Whitson recorded a whimsical video, posting it on social media, showing their patriotic attire in various poses.

Left: July 4, 2018. The Expedition 56 crew found the American flag originally flown aboard STS-1 and brought to the space station by STS-135. Right: July 4, 2019. Expedition 60 astronauts Christina H. Koch and Tyler N. “Nick” Hague in their finest patriotic outfits. Credits: NASA  
Left: July 4, 2018. The Expedition 56 crew found the American flag originally flown aboard STS-1 and brought to the space station by STS-135. Right: July 4, 2019. Expedition 60 astronauts Christina H. Koch and Tyler N. “Nick” Hague in their finest patriotic outfits. Credits: NASA

For Independence Day 2018, Expedition 56 astronauts Andrew J. “Drew” Feustel, Richard R. “Ricky” Arnold, and Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor retrieved a very special flag from stowage. The 8-by-12-inch American flag first flew into space aboard STS-1, the space shuttle’s inaugural flight, in April 1981. One of a thousand flags flown, it ended up in storage for 20 years until retrieved and flown to the space station on the space shuttle’s final mission, STS-135, in July 2011. The label on the flag, “Only to be removed by crew launching from KSC,” referred to the next launch of American astronauts from American soil, anticipated sometime after the shuttle’s retirement aboard a commercial provider. (More on this flag’s incredible journey below.)

For Independence Day 2019, Expedition 60 astronauts Tyler N. “Nick” Hague and Christina H. Koch, in the fourth month of her record-breaking 11-month mission, to date the longest single flight by a woman, recorded a video message for Earthbound viewers. In particular, they thanked servicemen deployed around the world and reflected on the bright future for America’s human spaceflight program.

Left: July 4, 2020. Expedition 63 astronauts Christopher J. Cassidy, left, Douglas G. Hurley, and Robert L. Behnken, hold the STS-1 flag. Right: July 4, 2021. The Expedition 65 crew, K. Megan McArthur, left, Mark T. Vande Hei, and R. Shane Kimbrough, tape a Fourth of July message. Credits: NASA  
Left: July 4, 2020. Expedition 63 astronauts Christopher J. Cassidy, left, Douglas G. Hurley, and Robert L. Behnken, hold the STS-1 flag. Right: July 4, 2021. The Expedition 65 crew, K. Megan McArthur, left, Mark T. Vande Hei, and R. Shane Kimbrough, tape a Fourth of July message. Credits: NASA

During their Independence Day video message on July 4, 2020, Expedition 63 astronauts Christopher J. Cassidy, Douglas G. Hurley, and Robert L. Behnken wished Americans a happy Fourth of July, looking ahead to future missions to the Moon and beyond. Behnken, holding the STS-1 flag that had waited for them aboard the station for nine years, added that he and Hurley would return it to the ground since they had arrived aboard the first crewed vehicle to launch from American soil following the retirement of the space shuttle. He indicated that the flag would later return to space aboard the first American crewed flight to the Moon as part of the Artemis program. 

In their video message on July 4, 2021, Expedition 65 astronauts K. Megan McArthurR. Shane Kimbrough, and Mark T. Vande Hei wished everyone a Happy Fourth of July and looked forward to future exploration missions to the Moon and beyond.

In the coming years, more American astronauts will continue to celebrate Independence Day aboard the space station, and one day we can look forward to some of them celebrating the holiday on the Moon!