Back in June of last year, I shared a few thoughts and observations about religious practices on the southernmost of our planet’s seven continents–exploring how technological changes had reshaped religious life in Antarctica, with possible impacts for the rest of us newly participating in online worship services during the pandemic. Although few of us will ever actually see or step foot on the continent, we can still learn much from Antarctica and the ways its unusual environs impact those who live and work there.
One can make a solid case for Antarctica being the most inhospitable place where humans successfully reside and work, even if just in small numbers and for small periods of time, but one possible exception to that requires us to look to the sky–the International Space Station. The unique nature of the ISS means that normal human life has to be adapted even more thoroughly than at the South Pole, as the living environment is smaller and transportation to and from the site is even harder to come by.
Those of us in the Churches of Christ were excited to read about a fellow believer, Victor Glover, making his way to the International Space Station in November of last year. In an interview with the Christian Chronicle, Glover described the steps he had to take ahead of time to ensure that he could worship. “I actually sent up communion cups and a Bible, and we have really good internet connectivity,” he told the Chronicle. (1) Glover is not the first representative from our fellowship to travel to space (Gus Grissom had him beat by a few decades) but his travel still marks a notable milestone in our collective history.
Glover is far from the first astronaut to have to balance the practices of religious observance with the realities of life in space, however. From the heady, early days of spaceflight, some astronauts have participated in religious services or acts while in space; Buzz Aldrin, for instance, privately took communion in space on the Apollo 11 mission, though he kept his public comments more generically spiritual, imploring those back on Earth “to give thanks in his or her own way.” (2) A trio of Catholic astronauts also participated in a Communion service in 1994 while “on the shuttle flight deck 125 miles above the Pacific Ocean. (3) Non-Christians have also had to find ways to adapt their religious practices to an outer space environment. When Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia traveled to the ISS back in 2007, the Malaysian National Space Agency and Department of Islamic Development worked together to craft a booklet offering guidance on a variety of topics of concern to Muslims who, like Shukor, would eventually travel to space:
Imagine trying to pray five times a day in zero gravity while having to face an ever-shifting Mecca hundreds of miles below. How do you ritually wash yourself without water? And, now that it’s Ramadan, how do you fast from sunrise to sunset when you see a sunrise and sunset every 90 minutes? (4)
The relationship between space and religion doesn’t just impact spiritually minded astronauts; it also influences the exploration of space itself. Research by political scientist Joshua Ambrosius, according to space.com, “found that Evangelicals — who account for one-quarter of the U.S. population — are the least knowledgeable, interested and supportive of space exploration, while Jews and members of Eastern traditions were most attentive and supportive…” This trend could be counteracted, however, as “evangelicals in particular were twice as likely to recognize the benefits of space exploration if their pastors speak [sic] positively about science.” (5)
Whatever the future of space exploration holds, if it is anything like its history, then religion will undoubtedly continue to shape and be shaped by it. I leave you now with an unusually specific hymn which you should definitely have your song leader or worship director put in the queue soon. Until next month…
(1) Bobby Ross Jr., “Christian astronaut — and his communion cups — lifting off on space mission,” Christian Chronicle, November 10, 2020, accessed December 28, 2020, https://christianchronicle.org/astronaut/ .
(2) Daniel Oberhaus, “Spaceflight and Spirituality, a Complicated Relationship,” Wired, July 16, 2019, accessed December 28, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/apollo-11-spaceflight-spirituality-complicated-relationship/ .
(3) Dennis Sadowski, “For Catholic astronauts, flying to space doesn’t mean giving up the faith,” Catholic News Service, April 7, 2016, accessed December 28, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20190525223049/https://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/for-catholic-astronauts-flying-to-space-doesnt-mean-giving-up-the-faith.cfm .
(4) Bettina Gartner, “How does an Islamic astronaut face Mecca in orbit?” Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 2007, accessed December 28, 2020, https://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1010/p16s02-stss.html .
(5) Leonard David, “Study Eyes Influence of Religion on Future Space Exploration,” Space.com, December 9, 2014, accessed December 28, 2020, https://www.space.com/27896-religion-influence-space-exploration.html . The original paper can be found at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spacepol.2015.02.003 .