Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention

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By: Dave Gordon

It’s been fifty years since the first attempt to launch a man on the moon on January 27, 1967. Two years later, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; a great leap for mankind, certainly, but also for science and the United States of America.

Six months earlier, in January of 1969, another first occurred: The first Jew was sent into space – Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov.

Fast forward to 2017. SpaceX’s engineer and inventor Elon Musk could be the latest member of the Jewish nation to make space history, as he flies prototype shuttles intended for public commercial launches.

To date, there have been many Jews involved in space travel; fourteen Jewish astronauts bound for space, including Ilan Ramon, the famous Israeli who perished aboard the Columbia shuttle, along with six of his colleagues, in Feb. 2003.

Like other Jewish astronauts before him and after him, Ilan infused some of his Jewish heritage into his mission. For the voyage, Ramon packed a pocket-sized Torah smuggled into (and out of) Bergen-Belson, a Nazi death camp. He also brought “Moon Landscape,” a picture drawn by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old inmate of Auschwitz. Remarkably, Ramon requested kosher food on board the shuttle and NASA
made contact with the Illinois-based, kosher certified My Own Meals, which makes “thermo-stabilized” sealed pouches for campers.

Reports say that Ramon also asked Rabbi Zvi Konikov of Satellite Beach, Florida about the specifics of keeping Shabbat in space. Torah scholars have been trying to figure out how to best make these, and other halachic quandaries work in outer space since the first lunar walk in 1969. At the time, Rabbi Menachem Kasher penned the sefer HaAdam Al HaYareach (Man on the Moon), and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach reviewed the discussion within.

Community Magazinehas proudly interviewed three Jewish astronauts for this special feature: Jeffrey Hoffman (the first Jewish male astronaut
in space), David Wolf, and Mark Polansky.

Jeffrey A. Hoffman:

CM: Did you always know you wanted to be an astronaut?

Hoffman:Well, if you’d asked in 1962 –
asked any red-blooded young American boy, or probably Russian boy, for that matter, what they wanted to be when they grew up, 90% of them would have said an astronaut.

I recognized that all of the early astronauts were military test pilots, and it was not a career I was interest in. I got a doctorate in astrophysics and was working at MIT and, at the time, in The Center for Space Research doing
high-energy astrophysics. Basically putting up telescopes to look at X-rays and gamma rays from stars and galaxies.

But, in the late 70’s NASA was developing what was then the brand new space shuttle, which had a crew of up to seven people and they only needed two pilots. So when they put out the first call for shuttle astronauts, all of a sudden there were two types of astronauts that they were looking for now. They were looking for the pilots, but they were also looking for scientists, engineers, medical doctors. When I realized that, I thought ‘Well, hey, that’s something I have always been intrigued by!’ so I put in an application, and I was lucky enough to get selected. And that
changed my life.

CM: What was a real highlight for you in space?

Hoffman:The first highlight was riding a rocket into space, which fulfilled a childhood dream of mine. It was a pretty incredible experience. But the most memorable highlight for me was, for every shuttle flight two crew members were trained to use the space suits, just in case there was a contingency – if something happened. We weren’t planning on doing one on our flight, but one of our satellites malfunctioned, and so they sent me and my partner out to do, what was for NASA, the very first ever, unplanned space walk. That was just an extraordinary experience.

CM: How did you get the idea to spin a dreidel in space?

Hoffman:Before my first flight, my rabbi asked me if I was interested in taking Jewish artifacts up. There were several dreidels
I took up. One was from my synagogue.

I also took a mezuzah, (donated to the Jewish Museum in
New York), a Torah, both tallits from my two sons’ bar mitzvahs,
and a menorah – which is still at the front door of the science museum in Jerusalem. While I was in Jerusalem I met a couple of Jewish artists who’d read about me – a Jewish astronaut, who took Jewish things into space. I had planned on being in space during Hanukah, and one thing led to another and they presented me with a dreidel and a traveling menorah.

It is a beautiful, beautiful dreidel. It spun for something like an hour.

CM: What did you do with the other Jewish artifacts?

Hoffman:My last flight was a two-shift flight, a 24-hour a day operation. There were only bunks for half the crew with little places where you could sleep at night, and so we would share those with someone on the other crew.

Well, I had a mezuzah with me. Of course you can’t nail a mezuzah to the door when you are in a spacecraft. You have to use Velcro. So, I put it on the inside of my little sleep compartment, and I would remove it every morning, because I figured this was for me; I didn’t want to impose on someone else who might not know what it was at all.

On the fourth day of the mission, the guy who had been using my bunk at night said, “Hey, Jeff, that’s a nice idea, putting the mezuzah up!” I slapped my forehead. Of course! It was Scott Horowitz, another Jewish astronaut. So after that, we just left the mezuzah Velcro’d to the wall for the both of us.

CM: Did you know Ilan Ramon?

Hoffman:I knew Ilan, and have had numerous contacts with his wife, Rona, since Ilan’s death.

Although he was a “payload specialist” astronaut –
a non-professional astronaut, on a crew for a special reason, for only one flight – he was totally accepted into the astronaut office culture. A large part of the reason was because his heroism as an Israeli Air Force pilot impressed the pilot astronauts, and another large part was because he was a genuinely likable and admirable person.

David Wolf

CM: Did you always want to be an astronaut?

Wolf: It always attracted me, and I remember exactly when, at the time. When I was a little boy in grade school we had a weekly reader, a little kid newspaper they give you at school, and I remember reading about the Agena docking with an Apollo spacecraft. It was a practice docking to get ready for the Apollo program.

I remember sitting in front of theTV and watching the Mercury 7.
It did inspire me. The whole country was ignited on fire by the space program then. We were going to win in space and there was pride about it. We don’t see that today.

CM: What was scary about being in space?

Wolf:I have had three total power failures of a spacecraft happen to me. Once I was trapped outside the airlock on a space walk in a Russian space suit, in a Russian spacecraft. Yeah, totally trapped. The airlock was never recovered. It wouldn’t
re-pressurize so we had to ditch into another module. Took
like 14 hours.

Over time we’ve learned that your bones are dissolving and your muscles are literally dissolving in space. I lost 40 percent of my muscle mass in a single 5-month flight and I lost 15 percent of bone mineral.

Now we’ve learned how to prevent a good deal of that, but we’ve also learned there’s a new problem for deep space exploration, most centrally regarding the human eye. We are running into real problems with the eye after three to four months in space. The shape of the retina changes, affecting people’s vision severely.

CM: What was a highlight of being in space?

Wolf:There were all kinds. It seems impossible that you can fly, and that you can lift a refrigerator with your baby
finger – but in space, you can.

During the Leonid meteor shower I was next to a window, looking down at the Earth, where there were just constant meteors entering the atmosphere below us.

And I remember my package of floating macadamia nuts.

CM: Now tell me about the space-Jewish connection.

Wolf:We Jewish astronauts do consider ourselves to be representing the Jewish community. We take it seriously. I carried a mezuzah up to space and it’s on my door now. I also carried a yad – a Torah pointer, and gave it to my synagogue in Indianapolis. I had a small menorah up there.
I have the world record dreidel spin.

CM: You might want to check in with Astronaut Hoffman about
that claim.

Wolf:Hoffman and I are having a running battle, a running argument on who has the longest dreidel spin. But I know mine went for an hour and a half until it got sucked into an air intake. It was just floating there spinning.

CM: Did you know Ilan Ramon?

Wolf:We were good friends. His office was right down the hall, a few doors down, and we always planned to do some things together, to go to Israel and visit. He was one of the very finest men that we ever saw come through. And Israel should be totally proud of providing that kind of quality to the astronaut office. His mark will stay forever. He made so many contributions.

Mark Polansky

CM: When did you decide to become an astronaut?

Polansky:I was thirteen when we landed on the moon, and I got inspired and
thought about becoming
an astronaut.

In school, the teacher would roll in a rickety old black and white TV on a stand, and plug it in, and pull out rabbit ears… And, of course, kids don’t know what rabbit ears are. You have to explain it to them. You had Walter Cronkite and all the guys over there live from The Cape, broadcasting the launch.

Becoming an astronaut was the cutting-edge, frontier-like thing to do if you were into exploration as a child. I had dreams that perhaps I’d be the first guy to walk on Mars.

And then, fast forward – and this is a timely story with the unfortunate passing of Gene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon) – to when I was a freshman in college in ’74-’75.
I was living in a dormitory at Purdue University with, of all people, David Wolf. And Cernan came to campus to give a talk.

I mean, imagine yourself as a freshman in college being about five feet away from a man who walked on the moon and hearing about this. And I still have goosebumps about that.

That moment, honestly, was the first time that I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s one thing to say I want to be an astronaut; it’s another to say: what do you actually do about that?’ And that brought me down a road that led to the Air Force and beyond, to eventually get where I got.

CM: What was a highlight of being in space?

Polansky:It truly gets you thinking about the fragility of this planet. You could see visible pollution on the earth from space. We better figure out how to take good care of the planet because it’s all we’ve got.

The other thing that comes with that is the stark beauty of the Earth, no matter where you look. You go over places – especially when you orbit around the Middle East – and you know what goes on on the ground, and the horrible things humans can do to each other and the suffering involved. You see none of that from there. You get this feeling of both hope and sadness. It gives you hope that we as a species can get past this.

CM: What difficulties did you run into?

Polansky:The difficulty on the shuttle missions is that you have a lot to do in a very short time frame. The shuttle missions were scheduled down to as tight as five-minute blocks of time. And it wasn’t the kind of thing where you could say, ‘Oh, this thing broke. Don’t worry about it. We’ll just get it done tomorrow.’ So, you had a lot of pressure to accomplish the mission safely and successfully.

CM: Did you know Ilan Ramon?

Polansky:I knew Ilan Ramon. When he came over he was flying with a couple of classmates of mine. After that tragedy, I spoke on behalf of the agency at a reception they had in Los Angeles about Ilan. I remember talking more about the type of person that I knew Ilan to be. He was just a normal, great guy, and a man of peace. And that’s the way I wanted folks to think about him.

CM: If you were to relay a message to our readers about the work that you’ve done, what would that be?

Polansky: What we are trying to do in space is to take the human race to the next level. To explore, which I think is in our DNA. The human race, the human spirit, knows no boundaries.

I’d also say that whatever it is that we dream about is achievable. It takes a lot of work, a lot of dedication, but it’s all there in front of us. We control our own destiny.

To learn more about Astronaut David Wolf

To learn more about Astronaut Mark Polansky,

Follow @Astro_127.  #WeBelieveInAstronauts