The “blessing” of a Soyuz spacecraft by a Russian Orthodox priest before its July launch stirred journalist Rebecca J. Rosen to ruminate on the connection between religion and space travel. Writing for the Atlantic, Rosen admits she is struck by an incongruity. Space travel seems to be the apotheosis of human technology: the practical application of the cold, dispassionate laws of physics supported by the latest inventions in engineering and electronics. How, she asks, can an endeavour so secular be infused with the trappings of religion? And yet that has been the case from the very beginning.
Rabbi Leonid Feldman recounts what it was like as a boy in the former Soviet Union when, in 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, became the first human being to orbit the earth. Upon his return, the Soviet press had one essential question to put: asking him if he had seen Him, meaning God. Of course the Soviet propaganda machine was interested only in mocking religion. But by even asking the question, the space-religion nexus was born.
In subsequent years Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman from the United States used the opportunity of orbiting the moon and witnessing the first “earthrise” to broadcast to earth the pertinent verses from the Genesis account of creation. In his 2009 memoirs, astronaut Buzz Aldrin mentions how he took communion before leaving the lunar landing module to become the second man to walk on the moon. And of all the choices he had to take aboard the (doomed) shuttle Columbia as personal effects, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took a miniature Torah Scroll.
Rosen posits two explanations for the injection of religion into space travel. First, she suggests, when the elements of risk applies religion serves as a kind of reassurance. Historically, Rosen is quite correct. There are no atheists in foxholes, goes the popular adage. War inevitably drives soldiers to seek comfort and strength. And travel itself (from the French “travail,” meaning hardship) was always considered difficult, if not perilous. Consequently, Jewish tradition, for example, includes a Traveler’s Prayer in recognition of the dangers posed to sailors and pilgrims, invoking God’s name for a safe arrival. Second, she suggests that particularly in space travel we human beings are made keenly aware of our real stature: small flecks in the vastness of the cosmos. The consequent awe moves us to a religious response. Thus, for instance, U.S. astronaut James Irwin once commented on how seeing our blue dot of a planet from a distance makes us realize how small and fragile is the earth and its creatures.
I would add a further explanation. Religion offers a measure of security in facing the unknown. For space travelers, deeply aware of the actual dangers they face but also in anticipation of the unimaginable dangers they might face, religion offers confidence building.
In a way, the New Year is a vast unknown, as daunting as travel into deep space. What lies ahead is unpredictable, despite the best-made plans. It is with this sense of insecurity that Jews flock to the synagogue. It is more than just a concession to the past or force of habit that impels even the least observant to find a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a response to the inner, psychological need to face the vast unknown with some degree of confidence. We do not know where the journey will take us, but we pray that we will arrive safely at our destination.