Prayers in Space

Science with heart. That’s one way to characterize Mary Roach’s writing. Uninhibited is another. I began reading her books when I saw Spook on the science shelf at Borders some years back. The nexus between what science teaches us and the magisterium of religion (ghosts certainly, by definition, fall into the “spiritual” category) has intrigued me all my life. I posted on both Spook and Stiff earlier in this blog. Her current work that my wife and I have just finished reading is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. The message that has rung loudly in my ears throughout the reading is that humans are evolved for this planet—space is not our native environment (well, at least not in a non-metaphysical sense). So many of the troubles she documents stem directly from the fact that we are biologically programmed to keep our feet pretty firmly on the ground. Weightlessness atrophies our bodies, cosmic radiation destroys our tissues, and there is always the difficulty of finding fast food in space.

One of the most telling points Ms. Roach makes, as is frequently the case, comes in a footnote. The note could, with some imagination, have been expanded into an entire chapter. “Religious observations are even tougher in a real spacecraft,” she begins. She points out specifically the difficulties of taking communion on a moon trip or praying five times a day aboard the International Space Station that renders a day a mere 90 minutes in length and staying Mecca-oriented is difficult when moving so far so fast. Religious leaders have to make special dispensations for those who take their religion beyond the bounds of earth-evolved faiths.

All of this raises a question that religions are reluctant to ask directly—what are we to make of petty observances that our belief systems demand when they are clearly based on outdated information? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all developed in a flat world in a geocentric universe with a dome-like sky above them. The regulations were drawn up for just such a fictional world. When the religious become astronauts they leave that world behind them in a way that must stretch the credibility of a doctrine developed without the input of an astrophysicist. How does an astronaut hope to go to Heaven when some missions take her or him far beyond the realm of the gods into the cold reality of outer space? Looking down on Heaven must be disorienting indeed. If Mary Roach had an equal in the world of religion writing, I would hope that she would ask that very question. In any case, we are fortunate enough to have the one and only Mary Roach to raise the question for us and to keep us oriented toward our true home.

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