Gobble, gobble! Satellite spies Thanksgiving turkeys being 'pardoned' at White House (photos)

a satellite view of the white house with a crowd in behind. arrows and text point to podiums with the u.s. president and the turkeys. an inset image shows u.s president joe biden beside a thanksgiving display
Satellite imagery shows the U.S. President ceremonial "turkey pardon" of national turkeys Chocolate and Chip on Nov. 22, 2022. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

Hundreds of spectators can be seen crowding to watch a White House turkey "pardoning" in fresh satellite imagery from space.

The curious ceremony on Monday (Nov. 21) was visible from space in an image produced by a Maxar satellite, called WorldView-3, and it even had a NASA connection. 

In a speech during the event, U.S. President Joe Biden joked that instead of naming one of the turkeys "Chip", he might have preferred "CHIPS" — the act that in part, gave NASA its funding for fiscal year 2023 and extended U.S. International Space Station operations to 2030.

Biden preferred the name of the other turkey he pardoned, called "Chocolate", because it's his favorite ice cream flavor, he added. "We could have named them 'CHIPS' and 'Science', but — anyway," he said (opens in new tab) of the turkeys to crowd laughter.

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The annual "pardoning" of turkeys sent to the White House appears to date back to a merciful gesture by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the White House states (opens in new tab). The ceremonial measure was enforced (so to speak) only sporadically until the Reagan administration, however.

The first pardoned turkey on record was affectionately named "Jack" by Lincoln's eight-year-old son Tad, according to Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab). (Tad had a love for animals; when goats Nanko and Nannie were donated to the White House, the lad is said to have hitched them sled-style to a chair, driving them into a packed East Room reception hosted by First Lady Mary Todd, the magazine adds.)

In photos: Animals in space

The annual Thanksgiving ceremony has also made its way to popular culture. Turkeys "Eric" and "Troy," for example, were featured on a famous 2000 episode of "The West Wing" under a fictional pardon contest: The winner would live in a zoo, while the "runner-up gets eaten," in the words of one of the characters. ("If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch," quips fictional Democratic president Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen.)

Bartlet, complaining that the powers of the presidency give no "judicial jurisdiction over birds" and a second ceremonial pardon would cement his reputation as being "soft on turkeys," eventually "drafts" runner-up Troy into military service to save the turkey from being served  —  at least in the dinner sense.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace