He put a mezuzah in space

Nasa astronaut Garrett Reisman reveals why he took a religious artefact into orbit

By Paul Berger, August 19, 2010
Garrett Reisman (right) with other space shuttle crew members in relaxed mood before blast-off

Garrett Reisman (right) with other space shuttle crew members in relaxed mood before blast-off

On May 14, Garrett Reisman got out of bed, brushed his teeth and got into an old Airstream motorhome that took him, along with five other astronauts, to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida. At about 10.30am, standing in the shadow of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, he and pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli joked about how stupid they would look if they messed up their forthcoming 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Then they boarded the shuttle, strapped themselves into their seats and, at 2.30pm, were, quite literally, blasted off the face of the earth. Within nine minutes, they reached 17,500 miles per hour.

"I had a window view for the launch and I saw the sky go from blue to dark blue to black over the course of just a few minutes," Reisman told the audience at a Limmud event in Long Island last weekend.

Whatever an astronaut is supposed to look like, the 42-year-old Reisman, who grew up in New Jersey, is not it. He is 5ft 5in and slightly stocky. He has dark hair, which is balding in the centre. He also, surprisingly, speaks fluent Russian - since joining Nasa in 1998 he has trained, on and off, for a total of about two years, in Star City, the formerly top-secret Soviet space facility near Moscow. (He was assigned the locker next to Yuri Gagarin's). In 2008, he spent three months living with two Russian cosmonauts aboard the ISS.

"I have a typical Jewish mother," he confided to his audience. "She is disappointed that I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer."

My mother is disappointed I didn't become a doctor

Reisman is not the first Jewish astronaut. Boris Valentinovich Volynov, a Soviet cosmonaut who flew two space missions in the 1960s and 1970s, is claimed to hold that title. Reisman is not certain that Volynov was Jewish. He cannot even confirm all of the American-Jewish astronauts cited on various websites because Nasa does not keep track of religious affiliation.

Nevertheless, Jews have had their fair share of space time. Recent American-Jewish astronauts include Gregory Chamitoff, Scott Horowitz and, tragically, Judith Resnik, who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

When Reisman spent his three months aboard the ISS in 2008, he famously fixed a mezuzah above his bunk. Was it out of religious conviction - the astronaut went to Hebrew school as a child and was barmitzvahed in a Reform synaogue?

"It was probably more that I wanted to acknowledge my Jewish heritage and represent the Jewish people," he says, noting that he has a mezuzah on his home in Houston too. "I was looking for a way to connect to my Jewish roots."

He adds that it was also a nod to the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who asked for a Holocaust-era mezuzah and other Jewish symbols, to take on his 2003 space mission. "He was really aware of the importance of what he was doing and he wanted as many people as possible to identify with him."

Reisman's connection with Ramon goes beyond religious artefacts. On February 1, 2003, after 16 days in space, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere, killing Ramon and the six other astronauts on board.

Reisman volunteered to liaise with the Ramon family. He represented America at Ramon's funeral in Israel and he continues to maintain close contact with the family today. "We would see each other a lot during training," he says of Ramon. "I even had a Seder at his home the first Passover I met him. From the moment of the accident and for the rest of my life I took on the responsibility of helping out as much as I can with the whole Ramon family."

Reisman knows that he could suffer a similar fate. Like all astronauts, he has pre-selected colleagues who would provide emotional support for his family, including his wife Simone, should he die in the line of duty. "I have a list of names in a folder in Houston right now that would be present to serve should something happen to me," he says matter-of-factly. But he is uncertain whether he will return to space.

America is winding down its ageing space shuttle programme in the coming years. In future, it may look to private companies to send astronauts to the ISS, so that Nasa can concentrate on developing longer-range craft to venture deeper into space. The queue for space flights has consequently got a lot longer, and having just returned from a mission Reisman faces a long wait.

"The best I can hope for is 2015," he says, and is considering his career options. He recognises that his missions in 2008 and last May might be the only two he ever flies.

They have certainly been eventful. During his first mission, Reisman spent seven hours walking in space. On the second one, he logged two spacewalks for a total 14 hours 11 minutes. At one point, he was hoisted six storeys above the space station on a robotic arm so that he could install an antenna.

"The best way I can describe [going into space] is it's like a boxer preparing for a title fight or a baseball player in the World Series," he says. "The rest of your life you are going to remember everything you did in that game so as a result you are incredibly focused on not making a mistake and doing a good job. That, plus the excitement of doing something unbelievably cool."

Last updated: 11:31am, August 27 2010