So you want to be a Jewish space cadet who goes to the heavens without having to abandon Jewish practices on the launchpad. Like most things in Judaism, preparation is key. Here are some of the challenges you are going to face.
Perhaps the most famous food associated with the space program is Tang, a fruit-flavoured drink which was used on early NASA space flights. That would be good news for observant astronauts. Tang is certified kosher by OK when bearing its symbol.
But astronauts cannot survive by Tang alone.
Although Ilan Ramon did not keep kosher, he felt that as the first Israeli to fly into space, he was representing the entire Jewish world. Keeping kosher symbolized that special connection.
Here is what was prepared for him: Florentine lasagna, beef stew, chicken Mediterranean, My Kind of Chicken and Old World Stew (beef with brown rice, zucchini, pinto beans and flavours of the Middle East.) If you are curious what kosher space food tastes like, you don’t have to go through rigourous NASA training to find out. You can order “thermostabilized” kosher food similar to what Ilan Ramon dined on from My Own Meals of Deerfield, Illinois.
Ramon also asked how to observe Shabbat from space. Recalls his friend Rabbi Zvi Konikov, “Rabbi I need to talk with you. I want to keep Shabbat while in space but no one can tell me how to do it!’ … He wanted to know how to keep Shabbat where there’s a sunset every 90 minutes and a new ‘week’ every ten and half hours.”
After bringing his query to leading rabbinical authorities, Ramon was advised to keep the Shabbat times of his place of departure – Cape Canaveral.
Rabbi Konikov adds, “Ilan Ramon taught us a powerful message: No matter how fast we’re going, no matter how important our work, we need to pause and think about why we’re here on Earth.”
Shabbat and kashrut are two of the most obvious issues for Jews in space but Dr. Gerald Wittenstein, a 20-year veteran of NASA, and CEO of International Space Systems, Inc., points out some lesser known challenges: danger, modesty and learning.
The Torah states, “Take heed and guard your life very carefully” (Deut. 4:9), and “Guard your lives very carefully” (ibid. 4:15). Judaism commands us to preserve our health and to not endanger ourselves. As we have unfortunately seen, there have been losses of crew in flight and on the ground. The technology is quite exotic, with many possible sources of failure. Dr. Wittenstein suggests that this danger factor would have to be weighed carefully before going into space.
Another consideration is Tzniut (modesty.) Usually crews are composed of men and women in various stages of dress, and situations of physical contact. The spacecraft would need separate showers and toilet accommodations.
As far as learning Torah, there are allocations for private time to allow one to continue one’s learning. On of the most famous broadcasts from space was in 1968 when the (non-Jewish) crew of Apollo 8 read the first ten verses from the book of Breishit (Genesis): “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”
Which brings us to another question, just what kind of job is astronaut for a Jewish boy or girl?
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, also known as the Zoo Rabbi, was asked by a parent whether he should encourage his five-year-old’s dream of being an astronaut someday.
The rabbi responded, “When I was five years old and people asked me what I want to do when I grow up, I replied that I want to work in a zoo. People laughed at me, and pointed out that nice Jewish boys are doctors, lawyers, and accountants, not zookeepers. Besides, they said, it’s not feasible to work in a zoo if you’re Jewish, because you would need to work on Shabbat; the animals need looking after on Shabbat, too.
“Well, lo and behold, I now work part-time in a zoo, albeit not as a zookeeper. Instead, my job is to teach about Torah perspectives on the animal kingdom.” Yes, Shabbat is an issue in space but perhaps in the future automation can handle that. More important adds the rabbi, “The message that I take from this is that you should never crush a child’s dreams; they can come true in ways that you don’t expect.”