What if the sun’s clockwork were to suddenly change, as it does for astronauts riding aboard the International Space Station? That’s the question that astronaut Sultan Alneyadi has been grappling with since his arrival at the space station on March 3. As one of fewer than a dozen Muslim astronauts who have traveled to space, Alneyadi faces a unique challenge as Muslims on Earth observe the month of Ramadan – a time of fasting, prayer, and reflection that runs from the evening of March 22 to April 21.
Alneyadi, from the United Arab Emirates, will be the first astronaut from his country to complete a long-duration stay on the floating laboratory. During his six-month mission, which ends in about five months, there will also be two Muslim festivals – Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, a celebration of the annual pilgrimage that Muslims make to Mecca, the holy land in Saudi Arabia, that begins June 28.
But as an astronaut, Alneyadi fits the definition of a “traveler,” which excuses him from attempting to observe Ramadan at the same time as Earth-bound Muslims. “We can actually break fast,” he said. “It’s not compulsory.” He added that fasting is not required if a crew member is feeling unwell or if it could jeopardize the mission or put the crew member at risk.
However, Alneyadi has expressed a desire to fast if possible, saying that Ramadan is a good occasion to fast, and it’s actually healthy. He has also said that he could fast according to Greenwich Mean Time, or Coordinated Universal Time, which is used as the official time zone on the space station.
Alneyadi’s experience is not the first time that religion has intersected with space exploration. In fact, astronauts and religious leaders have attempted to imbue extraterrestrial pursuits with spiritual significance from the earliest days of spaceflight. During NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, the astronauts conducted a reading of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, on their way to orbit the moon. Buzz Aldrin, who was with Neil Armstrong during the first moon landing in 1969, also quietly took communion from the Eagle lunar lander.
In 2007, Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor became the first practicing Muslim to stay on the International Space Station, and the Islamic National Fatwa Council of Malaysia issued special guidelines specifically to guide his and other future Muslim astronauts’ practices. Although his flight coincided with Ramadan, the council said his fasting could be postponed until he returned to Earth or he could fast in accordance with the time zone of the place from which he had launched.
These unique challenges highlight the intersection of religion and science, and the need for understanding and accommodation in these situations. As we continue to push the boundaries of human exploration, it’s important to remember that we bring our beliefs and values with us into the void of space.
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