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My Son, The Astronaut
(Part 1 of 3)

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"If anything was a religious experience, it was the spacewalk," recalled NASA Astronaut David Wolf. "It's kind of a leap of faith your first time opening the hatch, and clipping on and pushing yourself outside on these tethers. It was great fun!"

The first documented "astronaut" may have been the prophet Elijah who lifted off in "a chariot of fire and horses of fire...[ascending] to heaven in the whirlwind." [II Kings 2:11]. In modern times a number of Jewish astronauts have ascended into outer space, including David Wolf, whose modern day "chariot of fire" is the U.S. Space Shuttle.

"He was Bar Mitzvahed, and read from the Torah." recalled Dottie Wolf, "He can still speak Hebrew. He speaks Russian. He's an electrical engineer, and a medical doctor, and a pilot and a very avid sportsman." Dottie Wolf described her son, David, citing a resume of accomplishments that reads like an all-star team of Jewish sons. "So I always thought when he was a young boy, Œwhich direction would he take?' Because he really has abilities in so many directions," she continued. "Becoming an astronaut ... took in an awful lot of things for him. It enabled him to use a lot of his talents."

"Watching Ed White do the first U.S. spacewalk in the Gemini program, when I was 9 years old really inspired me with interest in engineering and the space program." revealed David Wolf. "It became a goal of mine to do a spacewalk. Thirty-one years later I got to do it. But I never dreamed that it would be from a Russian space ship in a Russian spacesuit, speaking Russian."

Wolf, 43, is unique in that he is an accomplished astronaut and scientist, who has made a point of maintaining his Jewish identity and observances proudly, even in orbit around Earth. His space experiences include three space shuttle flights as well as a four month sojourn in the Russian space station Mir. And those four months - from September 1997 through January 1998 - encompassed Rosh Hashonna, Yom Kippur and Chanukah.

Jewish Observances in Outer Space

"We had greetings from space at our Rosh Hashonna service," reported David's father, Dr. Harry Wolf, a physician from Indianapolis. Harry Wolf explained that David had recorded a greeting for their congregation, Beth-El Zedeck, and it was played at the service.

"The congregation just couldn't believe that they were being wished a Happy New Year from Mir," recalled Dottie Wolf. "It just had an unbelievable effect. It was something fantastic!"

Yom Kippur was another matter. "All I had to do was fast for an hour and a half," explained David Wolf, alluding to the fact that sunrise occurs every ninety minutes when you are in orbit around the Earth. "I fasted a few sunrises...I went five or six times around the Earth fasting," he calculated.

While there is no final rabbinic consensus regarding requirements to observe Jewish laws in outer space, rabbis have noted with regard to space travel that pikuach nefesh, or saving a life, overrides observance of the Sabbath and even Yom Kippur. Wolf confirmed that space life was far from routine. "We were so busy with the concrete events of staying alive, and operating the station...," Wolf reported, "that I honestly didn't have much time for philosophy...it's a shame isn't it?"

Wolf did find time to observe Chanukah in orbit. "I had a menorah up in space, but I couldn't light the candles." He explained that open flames are not permitted as they would pose extreme hazards in the oxygen rich atmosphere of the space station. He took advantage of zero gravity to enjoy another Chanukah tradition: "I probably have the record dreidel spin, which I did in space. It went for about an hour and a half... until I lost it. It got stuck somewhere and showed up a few weeks later in an air filter. I figure it went about 25,000 miles."

He also found time to do a little sightseeing. "You can observe Israel [from orbit] a couple of times a day. You get that ancient feeling that you get in Israel, when you're down there on the ground, at the Wailing Wall and in Jerusalem and all..." reflected Wolf . "It's a unique part of the globe. It has kind of an ancient appeal to it, even from space. It's one of the few places in the world where you can see a border between countries, between Israel and Egypt, because of the irrigation, because they water. You can tell the countries' borders because of that. Israel looks really dark, which indicates more vegetation."

(Coming soon: Part II: Zero Gravity)

© 2000 Miryam Z. Wahrman

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