12:14 21 April 2006 NewScientist.com news service
When you're in orbit, which way is Mecca? By Kelly Young
Malaysia's National Space Agency is trying to determine how its astronaut candidates will practice Islam in space. Three of its four astronaut candidates are Muslim, and two will be selected for a future Russian space flight.
Once in their orbiting spacecraft, they will circle the Earth once every 90 minutes. Traditionally, Muslims pray five times per day, at times connected to the position of the Sun in the sky. This will make prayer observance a challenge if they accept a "day" as being just 90 minutes long.
A similar problem occurs for Muslims who live close to Earth's polar regions where there are long periods of daylight or darkness. Islamic legal scholars traditionally say that in such situations, a Muslim should pray as they would at a particular, relatively high labreastude, even if they venture nearer the poles.
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"Any legal scholar advising these astronauts would have to simply pick various times that would roughly correspond to their morning, noon, afternoon, sunset and night prayers," says Alan Godlas, a professor of religion at the University of Georgia, US.
Additionally, Muslims turn toward Mecca when they pray. Zooming around the Earth at 28,000 kilometres per hour might make pinpointing the exact location of Mecca pretty tricky. Godlas says that orienting oneself toward Earth might be good enough. "There are instances where the prophet indicated a wide swathe; kind of a general direction," Godlas says.
And Muslims have a cleansing ritual, known as ablutions, before prayer. But water is used sparingly in space. Godlas says astronauts could force water between their two hands and then moisten the body during a minor ablution.
On Earth, it is ideal to have water running along the arms from the faucet, but water does not flow downward in microgravity. Godlas says that when water is not available, scholars have determined a pure rock could be used to wipe the hands. The hands could then clean the forearms, face and feet.
Saudi Arabian astronaut Sultan Salman Al-Saud flew aboard the shuttle in 1985. He was scheduled to look out the shuttle's window to see the crescent of the new moon to mark the end of the Muslim religious holiday, Ramadan.
About 150 scientists, astronauts, religious scholars and academics are expected to gather in Malaysia on 25 and 26 April for an "Islam and Life in Space" seminar.
People have found ways to celebrate other religions above Earth. Israel's first astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the shuttle Columbia accident, was not a religious Jew, but he ate some Kosher food aboard the shuttle and observed the Jewish Sabbath. But rather than observing Sabbath every seventh sundown, Ramon followed the timings on Earth.
Walter Sipes, chief of operational psychology at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says that a menorah (a Jewish candle holder) has not yet been requested for a long mission aboard the space station. It might be possible to send a menorah with little electric bulbs, he says.
Christianity has had a long history in space. Of the 29 Apollo astronauts, 23 were Protestant and six were Catholic.
Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, gave himself Holy Communion once his lunar lander touched down on the Moon. And while circling the Moon during the Apollo 8 mission, Frank Borman apologised to his Episcopal congregation because he would not make it back to Earth in time to be a lay reader on Christmas Eve. Borman and his crew did read from the book of Genesis.
Now, if astronauts request it, NASA can send up streaming video of religious services. There is also a Christmas tree on the International Space Station. "For some, religion is very comforting and we certainly want to respect that," Sipes told New Scientist.