At around 6 pm tonight, on Christmas Eve, a glimmering, shimmering object will pass above the skies over the British Isles; will it be Santa in his sleigh?
Maybe. Certainly to millions of excited children it could be. The Met Office in London forecasts that the ferocious storms, which have been raging for the past 48 hours, will have abated and moved on. The sky should be partly cloudy with no rain, and it is predicted to be around 7 Celsius (45 Fahrenheit). For four precious moments, there will be an apparition to behold.
As they crane their necks and gaze up, young children, already ablaze with the thrill of Christmas Eve, are going to wonder: Is it Him? The third brightest object in the sky it should be easy enough to spot; it will be dark, it will be cold, it will be Christmas. Kids will be shivering with delight as a bright object appears from the West and then fades and disappears again into the Southeast.
In fact, it will be the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting over England with its six-man crew on board. The astronauts have already joked that they don’t expect any collisions or “avoidance maneuvers” with “a sleigh being pulled by reindeer and occupied by a jolly man with a beard and a red suit.” They are so confident of no encounters, they are planning another long spacewalk today.
By the time the ISS carves a path over Britain, two of the men, Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, will have been floating out in the weightless eternity of space attempting to fix the pesky coolant systems once and for all. They will begin this extra-vehicular activity at 7:10 am Eastern Standard Time, which will be 12:10 pm Greenwich Mean Time.
The mission will be streamed live on SPACE.com via NASA TV. There are high hopes that Mastracchio and Hopkins will get the system repaired and there will be no need for a third spacewalk as originally planned for. They did so well when they first went out on December 21, they got ahead of schedule with the task. Today, they have to put in a new pump module, replacing the one they removed during that first walk. The internal control valve had failed in it on December 11, which put the whole future of the ISS in jeopardy.
A second complication set in when water was discovered in Mastracchio’s spacesuit once he was back on board after Saturday’s spacewalk. It was not nearly as serious as the water that got into Luca Parmitano’s helmet back in July, but it meant more delay as Mastracchio was sized for a spare suit. The suits are 35 years old; maybe not quite as old as Santa’s suit, but old enough to be showing signs of wear and tear. The astronauts will all now have snorkels and more pads to absorb potential leakage in the helmets.
The children who go outside tonight to gape in awe at the winter skies will all have their own theories about what they see. Psychologists say that believing in Santa is good for them, and a normal, necessary part of development. While the story of Santa is highly improbable, and for this computer literate generation, easily refuted, the need to exercise the imagination, develop creativity and have a reverence for myth are all key components of the human condition. Bruno Bettelheim’s classic book The Uses of Enchantment applies this theory to fairy tales and they way they help children deal with their inner fears.
St Nicholas was a real person who did distribute gifts to the poor. Children innately know that they may be rewarded if they are good and punished if they are not. If they are brought up to believe in Santa, finding out he is not real can be one of the crucial turning points of childhood.
Whether they believe they see Santa in his sleigh tonight or not, they will still be witnessing a miracle.
By Kate Henderson