Is there room for God on a space mission?


Bring your faith with you. Fototeca Storica Nazionale/Getty

Science continues to alter the shape of religious belief, so how does devotion to a god change in orbit? Would long-distance space travel require the use of on-ship burial plots for Jewish or Muslim astronauts? And what happens if the Christian rapture or some comparable end-of-days event were to occur while you're in space?

Certainly, these are far from pressing theological or scientific concerns, but the topic of religious belief in space continues to pop up. Here are some quick examples in Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

Jews in space: Yes, Kosher food has already appeared on our orbital menus. It was the year 2003 and Ilan Ramon enjoyed Rabbi-approved Florentine lasagna, beef stew, chicken Mediterranean and chicken and rice (nice overview here). And when it came to observing the Sabbath, Ramon mirrored the terrestrial Sabbath progression instead of counting every orbital sundown (as this would make the Sabbath a 90-minute affair that occurs every nine hours).

As for Hanukkah, astronaut Jeff Hoffman took both a menorah and a dreidel into orbit back in 1993. Of course you'd have to spin the dreidel in mid air in a weightless environment, but as described in this NASA science experiment, a menorah's candles would burn with fainter, spherical flames. Probably not the best use of limited oxygen, though.

Christians in space: In 1969, Buzz Aldrin consumed communion bread and wine on the moon. He didn't get to transmit the ceremony back to Earth, however, as NASA was already tied up in a lawsuit over the Apollo 8 crew's Christmas reading from the Book of Genesis. If you believe in transubstantiation, this means that the body of Christ has been to the moon -- which is quite a leap in space and time. What's more, in 2009 Cosmonaut Maksim Suraev reported that the Russian Federal Space Agency boasts a small cache of religious items on the International Space Station, including a reliquary cross which allegedly contains a piece of the "original cross on which Jesus was crucified."

Muslims in space: Which way is Mecca from orbit? How do you fast for Ramadan on a voyage to Mars? Malaysia's National Space Agency tackled these and other questions back in 2006. The country's Department of Islamic Development assembled a team of 150 Islamic scientists and scholars to produce this 12-page booklet on worship in space. Here are the highlights:

  • When attempting to pray in the direction of Mecca, the astronaut should simply do their best to determine the direction of Mecca or the "projection of the Ka'aba" (which is to say, the direction by which a straight geographical line on a globe would intersect with the black stone of Mecca). If these are not possible, then it's perfectly reasonable to pray toward the Earth. And if one can't be certain which direction that is? Well, then prayer (which might be a good idea in such a circumstance) can be directed "wherever." As described in this Wired article on the topic, a great deal of mathematics goes into figuring out Islamic prayer direction, but the prayer itself is ultimately more important than the direction.
  • The daily five prayer times are defined in a 24 hour duration following the time zone at which port the astronaut is launched.
  • Physical positioning during prayer should resemble the traditional standing, bowing and prostrating when possible, but in extreme cases where a cramped environment or lack of gravity prohibits this, merely imagining the positions through the sequence of prayer is fine.
  • Fasting during Ramadan can either be performed in space or compensated for on Earth.
  • The deceased should be brought back to Earth for burial or, in extreme cases, the corpse should be "buried in space with a simple funeral process."
  • Non-hallal food (or food that is not normally permissible under Islamic law) is OK if it's a question of eating or starving in space. .

So there you have it. The three People of the Book and the various ways they've combined religious faith with scientific space exploration.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.