Now that humans are regularly orbiting Earth and have plans to branch out to more distant frontiers of space, some tricky questions about religion ended up floating in limbo as well. For instance, just when is “sunset?” Another burning question for some astronauts is which direction do you face to pray?
Religion in orbit
Mixed crews of astronauts aboard the International Space Station aren’t expected to leave their religion behind. Apollo 8 astronauts, in 1968, “conducted a reading of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, on their way to orbit the moon.”
While social issues aren’t the problem with everyone in orbit educated and reasonably civilized, fundamental philosophical dilemmas have come up. One case is for those who observe fasting rituals for Ramadan or Yom Kippur. The fast turns to feast with the setting of the sun. The orbit of the ISS produces not just one but sixteen sunrises and sunsets each day.
That dilemma came up for Jared Isaacman. He grabbed his towel and hitched a lift with Elon Musk as part of the SpaceX Dragon Crew on September 15, 2021. That made him “the first space tourist to fly to orbit from US soil.” Even though he’s Jewish, Isaacman wasn’t about to give up an opportunity like that over his religion, so decided to ditch his Yom Kippur obligations. “To be very honest, I’m actually not a religious person,” he admits. Not everyone may feel the same way.
They have a solution starting with a precedent set by Buzz Aldrin. He “was with Neil Armstrong during the first moon landing in 1969.” He “also quietly took communion from the Eagle lunar lander — taking a sip of wine and a bite of bread blessed by his Presbyterian minister back in Houston — just before the men took humanity’s first steps on the moon.”
In 2007, Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor boarded the ISS. Before he lifted off, the Islamic National Fatwa Council of Malaysia “issued special guidelines specifically to guide his and other future Muslim astronauts’ practices.”
His flight put him in conflict with his religion and the tradition of Ramadan. That’s easy. The council ruled that “his fasting could be postponed until he returned to Earth or else he could fast in accordance with the time zone of the place he was launched.”
Kneeling in microgravity
Another thing that the council ruled was that there is no need to act silly trying to kneel for prayer in zero-gee, a notoriously “difficult feat.”
Since trying to observe his religion during his daily prayer would set him spinning like a dervish, “attempting to face toward Mecca, the holy land in Saudi Arabia, as Muslims must during Salah, or daily prayer, was left up to his best abilities, per the Fatwa Council guidelines.”
In 2003, Ilan Ramon insisted on obeying Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, which falls on Saturday.
When “he flew aboard a Space Shuttle mission and, in keeping with advice from ‘leading rabbinical experts,’ he too, “observed Shabbat in accordance with Cape Canaveral, Florida time, the place from which he had launched.” Observances of religion “that have taken place on board the 20-year-old ISS are annual Christmas celebrations and the Jewish holidays of Passover and Hanukkah.”
Jeffrey Hoffman, NASA’s first Jewish male astronaut had some fun playing with the philosophical quandary of religion from his childhood. In 1993, he “broadcast himself spinning a dreidel in microgravity on national television.”
The little game, he explains, is “something that you spin, and then you see which side comes up. And according to that, you either win or lose and I was just trying to see how you might reinterpret the rules for spaceflight since there’s no up or down.”