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Home » How will Astronaut Sultan Alneyadi observe Ramadan on the space station where 16 sunsets occur daily?

How will Astronaut Sultan Alneyadi observe Ramadan on the space station where 16 sunsets occur daily?

23 March 2023, Thursday

Fasting rituals on holidays such as Ramadan and Yom Kippur have for centuries been marked by a setting sun, signifying the end of the day and the start of the evening meal. However, the daily cycle of light and dark may be disturbed for those who take the exceptional journey to the International Space Station, where they experience 16 sunrises and sunsets each day due to the spacecraft's rapid motion of 17,000 miles per hour (27,600 kilometers per hour). As a result, these changes in the circadian rhythms may have implications for when these individuals honour their fasting rituals.

Sultan Alneyadi has been grappling with the same question since his mission began on March 3rd. He is one of very few Muslim astronauts who have gone to space, and when his mission is concluded in five months' time, he will be the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates to have completed a prolonged stay on the International Space Station.

During his stay, Muslims on Earth will observe the period of Ramadan – a time which consists of fasting, praying and reflection, beginning at night on March 22nd and continuing until April 21st. Furthermore, they will celebrate two religious festivals – Eid al-Fitr, signifying the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, commemorating the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred destination in Saudi Arabia, which commences June 28th.

Hazza Alneyadi, a UAE astronaut, recently spoke to reporters about his upcoming mission, which will take six months. He discussed how he could observe Ramadan, noting that as an astronaut he could be considered a traveler, allowing him to break his fast without penalty. Additionally, he said that fasting was not compulsory if it put the mission or crew member at risk. Alneyadi concluded by saying that the mission's safety was his priority.

At a February news conference in Dubai, Hamad Alneyadi revealed that if he had the opportunity, he would fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in space. Speaking to reporters, he mentioned that it would be possible to do so according to Greenwich Mean Time or Coordinated Universal Time, which is the time zone used on the International Space Station.

The aspiring astronaut expressed enthusiasm for the possibility, mentioning that not only would it be spiritually meaningful to him, but it would also have health benefits. As of now, Alneyadi has not been selected to travel to the International Space Station, so it remains to be seen if he will get the chance to observe Ramadan during a mission to space.

During the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, the astronauts aboard read Genesis, the opening book of the Bible, while they orbited the moon. After the first moon landing in 1969, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin present, Aldrin took communion from the Eagle lander. This included sipping a portion of wine and biting a piece of bread which his Presbyterian minister from Houston had earlier consecrated. It marked a spiritual moment for the two astronauts as they became the first people to ever set foot on the moon.

In 2007, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia became the first Muslim to stay on the International Space Station and the Islamic National Fatwa Council of Malaysia provided specific guidelines for Muslim astronauts. For example, fasting during Ramadan could be postponed until his return to Earth or done in accordance with the launch time zone. Additionally, he was not required to try to kneel for prayer and was allowed to orient himself as best as possible towards Mecca for Salah.

In 2003, Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut, attempted to observe the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat, during a Space Shuttle Columbia mission. He followed the advice of leading rabbinical experts and observed the day in accordance with the time at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the place of the launch. However, not all Jewish astronauts have tried to follow this practice. Unfortunately, the Columbia orbiter then broke apart during the return to Earth on February 1, 2003, leading to the deaths of Ramon and his six crewmates.

Annual religious observances have long been part of life on board the 20-year-old space station, including Christmas celebrations, Passover, and Hanukkah. Of these, a memorable moment came in 1993 when astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman broadcast himself spinning a dreidel in microgravity on TV - to interpret the rules of the game in a weightless environment with no up or down.

Rabbis and religious scholars are divided in their perspective on how Jewish astronauts should observe Yom Kippur in space. For generations, they have been attempting to find a way to celebrate timely holidays when the sun and moon do not follow what is typically expected of them. In 2002, Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem issued a responsum, or written answer to a query about Jewish law, that reviewed the various ideas about this matter.

A rabbi from the 18th century, Jacob Emden, was not familiar with space travel. However, he was aware of the concept of traveling so close to the Earth’s North or South Pole that a person might not witness a sunset for an extended period. As a result, he advised counting “days” as normal at lower latitudes, by noting the passing of 24 hours. A different rabbi from the 19th century, Israel Lifshitz, stated that a traveler should observe holidays according to the same time as their point of origin, discussed in Golinkin’s responsum.
Golinkin then expressed an opinion about space travel, writing that astronauts should set their watches to US Central Time Zone, as this is where most American astronauts are from.

In 2021, Jared Isaacman made history by becoming the first space tourist to fly to orbit from US soil aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. As a Jewish individual, he was posed with the question of how to celebrate Jewish holidays in orbit. During an interview with CNN, Isaacman stated that he was not religious and noted that he is a contributor to a local synagogue in New Jersey. He further revealed that he did not plan to observe Yom Kippur, which started at sundown on the day of his launch.

Rabbi Dovid Heber, writing for the kosher certification organization Star-K in 2007, suggested that ideally, one should not travel to outer space. However, if one must, there are various options that may satisfy religious requirements. Heber noted that in certain circumstances, stretching a one-day holiday into three days may be theoretically possible, depending on the circumstances of the spacecraft's orbit. When asked for his opinion, Rabbi Eli Kornfeld of Hunterdon, New Jersey, who regularly serves the synagogue attended by Isaacman, agreed with Rabbi Golinkin's assessment that Yom Kippur fasts may still be observed in space in accordance with Earth-based clocks.

Kornfeld said that, if he ever had the chance to be in space, he would very much like to, although he would do whatever it took to avoid being up there on Yom Kippur. This is because on that specific day, observant Jews are supposed to refrain from working, and from using electricity, operating cars, or boarding flights. Nevertheless, he pointed out that if ever in the future, humans come to live and work in space, Judaism would surely have adapted and evolved in order to accommodate the new conditions. According to him, “one of the most beautiful things about Judaism is its ability to remain relevant and to change with the advances of technology and discoveries.”
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