Spiritual experiences common for astronauts
Now that we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first human moon landing, the religious or spiritual experiences of astronauts in space are worth noting and reflecting upon. This is not limited to those who journeyed to the moon but rather extends to the many astronauts who have spent some time in space, particularly on the International Space Station (ISS). It also extends to various faiths: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and possibly others.
John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, said he prayed every day on his spaceflights. “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible,” Glenn told reporters in 1998, just after returning from his final trip to space at the age of 77. “It just strengthens my faith.”
In 1968, the Apollo 8 spaceflight took astronauts around the moon (without landing) on Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve) and, while the world was watching a live transmission on TV, astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman recited the first verses of the Bible. Interestingly, a lawsuit by American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair alleged that the observance amounted to a government endorsement of religion, in violation of the First Amendment, but the case was dismissed.
During the historic first moon landing of Apollo 11, shortly before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out for their walk, Aldrin addressed the people on Earth: “I would like to request a few moments of silence... and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours (the extraordinary landing), and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then took out his crucifix and prayed.
Space makes us feel small yet significant, and connects us to the divine.
In his book, “Magnificent Desolation,” which was published in 2009, Aldrin wrote: “Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievement, a deeper meaning — a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, and out there.”
A number of other astronauts related the spiritual experience that space induced in them. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell spoke of experiencing “interconnected euphoria.” He said: “Something happens to you out there.”
On Apollo 15, Jim Irwin, who was a non-practicing Protestant, was “touched by grace.” And, upon his return to Earth, he founded an evangelical movement and embarked on a search for Noah’s Ark.
From his Apollo 17 trip, Gene Cernan, who had been a Catholic nominally, came back convinced that there must be a God to explain the beauty and perfection of the universe. He said: “There is too much purpose, too much logic. It was too beautiful to happen by accident. There has to be somebody bigger than you, and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense.”
More recently, Tim Peake, a British astronaut who spent 186 days on the ISS in 2016, said: “Although I say I’m not religious, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t seriously consider that the universe could have been created from intelligent design... Seeing how magnificent the Earth is from space and seeing the cosmos from a different perspective, it helps you to relate to that.”
What about Muslim astronauts? The first Arab and Muslim to go to space was Prince Sultan bin Salman. He flew into orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery in June 1985, participated in the deployment of the Arabsat-1B satellite, photographed the new moon from space, gave a TV tour of the space shuttle’s interior in Arabic, and prayed and read the Qur’an.
Another Muslim astronaut whose religious activity in space was much publicized was Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia, who went to the Russian space station Mir aboard the Soyuz spacecraft in October 2007. The Malaysian National Space Agency and its Department of Islamic Development had held a two-day conference in April 2006, where 150 scholars, scientists, and astronauts discussed “Islam and Life in Space,” covering prayer times and direction, diet, fasting, and funeral processes in case of death.
Perhaps I should take a minute to negate some false claims that are somewhat widespread among Muslims about space and religion: That Neil Armstrong heard the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) on the Moon and converted to Islam (untrue), and that Sunita Williams, the Indian-American astronaut who flew to the ISS several times, also converted to Islam (also untrue; in fact she was a devout Hindu).
It is not surprising that devout astronauts would express their varied religiosity in space, particularly in those extraordinary moments. What is more remarkable is that many had a spiritual experience from the cosmic awe they enjoyed in space. Indeed, space makes us feel small yet significant, and connects us to the divine.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. He is the author of the recently published “The Young Muslim’s Guide to Modern Science” (Beacon Books, UK). Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum