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An astronaut's deep-space faith can make voyage, too

10:32 AM, Mar 2, 2014   |    comments
An image from Mars (NASA photo)
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By J.D. Gallop, FLORIDA TODAY

(Florida Today) -- Sometime in the future, a man - or woman - may step onto the arid, red surface of Mars and, for a moment, set aside science before staring off into the distance of space to say a prayer.

But will it be a lilting public call to prayer or a personal meditation recognizing God as the creator of an expansive universe necklaced with unexplored planets and galaxies?

"People take their faith wherever they go, be it Earth or to the furthest corner of the universe," said Winston Scott, a former astronaut who traveled aboard the space shuttles Endeavour and Columbia. "I don't think a person could abandon their faith, it's a part of who you are.

"It's a very personal thing. When I was in space, I didn't stop to have formal prayer, but my spirituality is expressed 24/7. On my flights, probably most of us prayed internally, but had you taken us and had us out there for six months, then it probably would be different," said Scott, who took three spacewalks 200 miles above the Earth.

Since the dawn of the space age - from missions to the moon to space shuttle flights and extended stays on the International Space Station - faith and religion have played a role in humanity's exploration of the universe.

The Apollo 8 crew read from the Book of Genesis as they circled the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968. A Russian Orthodox priest typically blesses the Russian Soyuz spacecraft before it is sent hurtling toward space. And in 1985, Saudi astronaut Prince Sultan broke from his duties aboard space shuttle Discovery to fast during Ramadan - the holiest month in Islam - and pray three times a day as Earth passed beneath him.

In recent weeks, thanks to popular films like "Gravity" - up for an Academy Award tonight - and novels such as "The Martian" depicting astronauts in trouble, space travel is top of mind. And with reinvigorated talk of someday sending humans to Mars, whether as a future NASA mission or a privately financed venture, questions of faith in space have arisen again.

Islamic clerics in the United Arab Emirates issued a fatwa, or religious edict, last month banning observant Muslims from going to Mars because for now, the "chances of dying are higher than living," according to a statement issued by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment. Suicide is forbidden in Islam.

The fatwa was issued in response to a bid by the private Dutch group Mars One to send four volunteers more than 30 million miles through deep space on a one-way mission to the planet by 2025. The group wants to establish a human settlement on Mars that will be survival- and science-focused. At the same time, organizers recognize that astronauts will carry their beliefs, cultural and religious, with them.

"While astronauts will certainly bring to Mars their own ideas about religion, and the Mars One project encourages religious freedom, religious activity and beliefs will be purely a matter of individual choice on Mars," Mars One officials said in a statement on their website in response to the fatwa.

Faith In Space

There have been Muslims, along with observant Jews and Christians, who have ventured into space, putting aside the risk. And many have carried their faith with them.

In 2007, Islamic clerics in Malaysia issued a how-to guide for Muslim space travelers. The booklet detailed prayer positioning for astronauts in the micro-gravity environment, along with instructions on ritual washing, fasting and having acceptable food. Muslims, according to Islamic tradition, must pray five times a day facing toward Mecca, a physical fact that requires some adjustments in space.

Astronauts less bound by rituals also have taken their beliefs with them. In 1969, astronaut Buzz Aldrin - the second man to walk the surface of the moon -quietly sipped wine and ate bread while sitting in the lunar module. It was the first Christian Communion to take place on the cold, powder-gray surface of the moon.

Bibles, religious pendants and other items are frequently taken by astronauts into space, NASA officials say.

Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died when Columbia disintegrated upon its return to Earth in February 2003, carried a ritual kiddush cup to recite Sabbath prayers in space, even as the space shuttle orbited the Earth 16 times a day.

One of the major questions Ramon raised - one that could face future astronauts living on Mars - was when to keep the Jewish Sabbath.

"He asked me, 'When should I mark the Sabbath? Can I do it according to Israeli time, NASA time?' And I'm sure it is a question that will come up again as to how to live a religious lifestyle," said Rabbi Konikov of the Chabad of the Space Coast. The answer: Sabbath-observant astronauts would mark off 24-hour periods and still hold the seventh-day in earth time sacred, if at all possible given the duties of maintaining a spacecraft.

On Mars, however, a day on the ground lasts 24 hours and 30 minutes, slightly longer than on Earth, a potential problem for explorers.

"There is a school of thought that the Torah (The First Five Books of the Bible) is really meant for life on Earth and therefore life on other planets would be exempt from biblical commandments that are time-bound," Konikov said. "But loving your fellow man is really a 24/7 commandment."

Diversification

As those embarking on space travel grew more diverse, so did their religious faiths. Shuttle flights carried astronauts from a variety of faith traditions. There were Universalists, Baptists, Catholics and Muslims.

"As far as NASA is concerned, (astronauts) can have faith if they choose to or not. The key concept is to be respectful and thoughtful of others," said Jay Bolden, spokesman for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The ways of incorporating faith into a mission vary as much as the faiths represented.

"Sometimes it is just as simple as wearing a rosary or things like tablets or Torahs. ... We do have a history of that. As for the International Space Station, there are no chapels, but there, astronauts are certainly able to have the opportunity for (faith) with down periods of time. They can fire up the computer and look up scripture or have mission control record a program to send it back to them," he said.

Scott, who was raised a Baptist and now attends services at an Episcopal congregation in Cocoa, believes space exploration will undoubtedly present some of the same religious challenges that European explorers faced arriving in the New World.

Beliefs changed, new branches of faith were created. The same thing could happen on the moon, Mars or anywhere, he said.

"I believe that religion is going to be handled much the same as it was then. The explorers brought their religion with them. But religion is also evolving," said Scott, adding that he does not profess his faith publicly and never did while in space.

For those hoping for a chance to evangelize in space, they may be disappointed.

Their potential audience is likely to be limited, scientists say.

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