Observing the Sabbath Aboard NASA Spacecraft

I was recently asked about U.S. policies concerning the keeping of the Sabbath aboard NASA spacecraft. Accordingly, I considered several questions:

What is the history of Sabbath and other religious observances in space?

Since almost the beginning of human space flight astronauts and those associated with them have expressed their religious beliefs. Her are only a few examples:

At the April 9, 1959, press conference introducing the Mercury seven astronauts, John Glenn, responded to the mood of an awed audience and delivered a ringing sermon on God, country, and family that sent reporters rushing off to file positive stories.

Scott Carpenter wished “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as the Atlas roared into orbit on February 22, 1962, on the first American orbital space flight.

The wives of the Gemini V crew in August 1965 worshipped in their local church over a Sunday morning during the mission, praying for their husbands’ safe return.

On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 broadcast from lunar orbit images of Earth while reading the first part of the Bible—”God created the heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was without form and void”—before sending Christmas greetings to humanity.

On Apollo 11 Buzz Aldrin said during a broadcast back to Earth that Psalm 8 was a fitting characterization of the mission, “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast originated, what is man that Thou art mindful of him.”

During the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, the crew often referred to faith in God during transmissions to Mission Control and President Richard M. Nixon declared April 17, 1970, a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving.”

On Apollo 14 Edgar Mitchell carried to the Moon a microfilm copy of the Bible made available to him by the Apollo Prayer League, a non-denominational organization of started by NASA personnel who were also religious.

Since the point where missions have been undertaken that required astronauts to fly during a normal Sabbath periods, there are numerous instances of astronauts undertaking religious rites and other religious observances in American spacecraft. Here are only a few examples:

On Apollo 8 Frank Borman radioed the following prayer to Earth on the third orbit: “Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust thy goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us van do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen.”

On Apollo 11 Buzz Aldrin took time out before departing the LM for the lunar surface to partake of Communion.

On STS-58, Columbia, in October-November 1993, astronaut David Wolf took up a Torah pointer and a shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown to announce the new year, for the Beth-El Zedeck Temple in Indianapolis, where he had his bar mitzvah 28 years earlier.

During the flight of STS-61, Endeavour, in December 1993, astronaut Jeff Hoffman celebrated the festival of Hanukkah in orbit with a menorah and a dreidel. Of this observance Hoffman said, “In this way, I am continuing an age-old tradition of my people; in all their wanderings from the ancestral homeland, they carried with them the building blocks of Jewish family and community.”

During the period that Shannon Lucid was aboard Mir in 1996 she had the opportunity to exercise her religious faith, and she indicated that she “had the opportunity to take any reading material that I wanted to when I went up, so of course I took a little Bible that I always carry with me when I travel.”

During his stay on Mir in the fall of 1997, NASA astronaut David Wolf celebrated Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah on orbit.

During the flight of STS-107 in 2003, Ilan Ramon took on the mission a Mezuzah and other symbols of faith.

Does NASA have a policy on the Sabbath and other religious observances in space?

There were no specific policies put into place relative to religious observances in space during the formative years of NASA. In a memorandum dated November 2, 1973, John P. Donnelley, Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs at the Johnson Space Center, wrote, “it has always been NASA policy to neither restrict nor encourage these expressions from outer space…” He wrote this in response to a letter from an individual complaining about a perceived muzzling of astronauts in the aftermath of a lawsuit filed by Madalyn M. O’Hair. O’Hair was a militant atheist who objected to the reading of the Bible from lunar orbit during Apollo 8. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court ruled on September 23, 1970, that it found no violation of the principle of separation of church and state with “astronauts praying or reading from the Bible while traveling to the Moon.” There are no specific current policies for the observance of the Sabbath or religious holidays.

Do other spacefaring nations have policies on this subject?

During the Soviet era, cosmonauts were prohibited from engaging in religious observances. Since the downfall of the Soviet Union the cosmonauts have been allowed to observe their religious beliefs as they think appropriate.

Are there other models for policy on this matter?

The closest parallel to space activities is the international scientific outpost in Antarctica. The installation is managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and located on soil that is not controlled by any nation. The NSF does not have any policy in place whatsoever for the observance of either religious holidays or the Sabbath. That is left entirely up to the individuals on site to observe their religions in their own way.

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4 Responses to Observing the Sabbath Aboard NASA Spacecraft

  1. Chris Gainor says:

    Gordon Cooper said a prayer during his Mercury MA-9 flight in 1963. The prayer was not broadcast but was recorded by on-board equipment.


  2. Francis French says:

    Roger, reminds me of an interview article I did for “Spaceflight” magazine some years ago with the first Muslim spacefarer, Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, where we talked about some of his religious observances.


  3. Mike Riggs says:

    It reminds me how “earth-based” mono-theistic (and, of course, pagan) religious traditions really are. The time and duration of a “Sabbath day” depends on an individual being in a stationary position on earth in relation to the sun…if you are in space in orbit, when do you start and finish your observance? Then the image of spinning the dreidel in zero gravity…priceless!


  4. David DeFelice says:

    Excellent article. It’s long been a subject I’ve had personal interest in. Here’s some other info for you:
    +Astronaut Jeff Williams on the International Space Station prays with attendees during National Day of Prayer in 2006.
    +Numerous religiously themed musical “Wake Up” calls to shuttle crews. These are typically selected by family members.
    +I also have a copy of a White House release dated August 14, 1997 and titled, “GUIDELINES ON RELIGIOUS EXERCISE AND RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION IN THE FEDERAL WORKPLACE.” Obviously a US spacecraft can be considered a Federal workplace! I’ll send you a copy at your work e-mail.
    I also had an insightful private conversation with Alan Bean once. When I asked him about how traveling to the Moon affected faith, his opinion was that it was like a wedge, not changing opinions on theism or atheism, but driving either opinion deeper in the heart of the individual.


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