Ep. 2: Which Astronauts are Jewish?

In Episode 2 of Space Midrash, Jacob introduces the first 16 Jewish Astronauts and the Jewish objects they brought into space. In his opening monologue, he probes why there’s a higher percentage of Jewish astronauts than Jews from the general population as well as confront the misconception that there were only 2 Jewish astronauts.

  • [2:04] What percentage of general population is Jewish
  • [4:00] Misconception of all Jewish astronauts dying in space
  • [6:46] List of Astronauts
  • [10:23] Jewish Objects in Space

Transcript: Jacob Sager:

You are listening to the Space Midrash podcast. This is episode two titled “Which Astronauts Are Jewish?” In this episode, we’re going to meet the Jewish astronauts for the group that will be called the Early Jewish Astronauts. These 16 Jewish astronauts out of the 550 plus astronauts who have been to space since Yuri Gagarin over 60 years ago. We’ll go over the names of these astronauts, their flight histories and discuss briefly their Judaism and any Jewish objects they may have brought with them to space.

My name is Jacob Sager. I love space. I love space science. I love the space program. And I started the show Space Midrash to probe the intersection of Jewish civilization in the space age. I believe in an ethical, artful and inclusive humanity thriving amongst the cosmos. And I think that there is an interesting place for Jewish values. So listen up. We will meet the Jewish astronauts learn more about their mission and the Jewish objects they brought to space. This is episode two, space Midrash. Which astronauts are Jewish?

There’s a few things I want to say before I introduce the Jewish astronauts or the early Jewish astronauts. A few things I want to probe and explore and make a context here. And the first is that Jews are a minority in the world. We represent point zero 2% (0.02%) of the world’s population. Okay? Very small amount of people. However, out of the astronaut population, Jews represent 2%. Okay? That is a 100% increase, 100 times more. And that’s kind of funny.

It’s very funny because many people, especially antisemites, believe that Jews represent 10% of the world’s population or some number that is highly inflated. And imagining what it looks like through their eyes to see 2% of the astronauts being Jewish would seem like an antisemitic conspiracy. But to me, seeing that is not surprising. To me, it’s not an anti Semitic conspiracy, rather the opposite.

It’s really an expression of cultural values. Regardless of where Jews are in the world, regardless of their religious observance, there is a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and a commitment to the contribution to the society that you are part of. And becoming an astronaut encapsulates all of those things and brings them together in this amazing way. And so the many people who became astronauts, whether they were pilots or they were scientists, it was an expression of themselves. And I know that without knowing them, I know that the values of science and of contribution and of working hard from their Jewish families led them to being astronauts. Just like those same values from the non Jewish astronauts families led them to being astronauts. It’s not some conspiracy. It is a lifetime of hard work.

And I want to know who these people are and highlight them to other Jewish people. Because as more people go into space, which is only going to increase every year now that we’re in the 2020s, more Jews will go into space. And so we will look back on these 16 individuals and know them as the early Jewish astronauts.

There’s a major misconception people have about the early Jewish astronauts that I want to address before I introduce them. And I want to point this out because a lot of people who I know, who I love who are smarter than me, who know more history than me – however for some reason a few folks have expressed this misconception and I just want to get to the heart of it.

The misconception is that there were two Jewish astronauts and that they both died on their mission. And so that’s why I want to talk about the 16 astronauts. Because that misconception is based, in truth. On  both shuttle disasters which was the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003. There were Jewish astronauts. In 1986, Judith Resnick, who was one of the first female astronauts she was on her second mission on the Challenger and it exploded during takeoff and everyone died. And in 2003, Ilon Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut and he was a pilot from Israel and the Columbia. Unfortunately, it exploded during its descent shortly before it was supposed to land.

And while both of these flights had a Jewish crew member who did die there are still 14 other Jewish astronauts who live and breathe and are continuing on their careers. And we’re going to meet them and be introduced to them and their stories.

And the last thing I want to point out or get to about Jewish astronauts before we meet them is I feel it’s important culturally and as a civilization to know and identify Jewish astronauts. To own them as part of the tribe and identify ourselves with them.

But at the same time, they’re just individuals like all the rest of us. And whether or not Jewish religion or other parts of Jewish culture or Jewish ethnic identity play a huge role in who they are personally or professionally is actually almost unimportant for this discussion. It’s just to know that they exist.

But on top of that, we want to celebrate and identify with the accomplishments of these individuals and to celebrate Jewish people leaving planet Earth. So let’s meet the Jewish astronauts.

In this part of the episode, we’re going to meet the early Jewish astronauts. So I’m going to list through the 16 Jewish astronauts. We’ll go through an order of mission starting from the first person who went to space ending with the most recent, I’ll say their name, what country they are from and a brief note on their flight history.

The first Jewish astronaut is Boris Volynov. Boris Volynov was from the Soviet Union. He was a cosmonaut. He flew on Souyez five in 1969.

The second Jewish astronaut is Judith Resnick. She flew in the space shuttles in 1985 and 1986.

The third Jewish astronaut is Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman. He had five flights and multiple EVAs.

Our fourth Jewish astronaut is Ellen Baker, who first flew in 1985.She actually became chief of the medical branch of NASA.

The fifth Jewish astronaut we have is Marsha Ivans, who flew on five different flights from 1990 to 1992.

The 6th Jewish astronaut we have is Jerome Apt, who was on four flights and had two EVAs. We actually also worked on the Pioneer probe that went to Venus.

The 7th Jewish astronaut was David Wolfe, who had four missions and seven EVAs and spent time in the International Space Station.

The 8th Jewish astronaut we have is Martin Fettman, who, in 1993, was on one flight of the space shuttle Columbia.

The 9th Jewish astronaut we have is John Grunsfeld, who had five shuttle flights and eight EVAs. He eventually was NASA’s chief scientist.

The 10th Jewish astronauts we have is Scott Horowitz, who had four missions.

The 11th Jewish astronaut is Mark Polanski, who had three flights.

The 12th Jewish astronaut was Ilon Ramon, who was from Israel. He was an Israeli astronaut with one flight in 2003.

The next Jewish astronaut, number 13, is Garrett Reisman, who had two flights in 2008 and 2010 in an EVA.

The 14th Jewish astronaut was Gregory Chamitoff, who had two flights.

The 15th Jewish astronaut is Yuri Shargrin, who is a Russian cosmonaut who was in a Souyez in 2004.

And our 16th Jewish astronaut is Jessica Meir, who went to the International Space Station in 2019.

So those are our 16 early Jewish astronauts. I’m going to go over their names again very quickly here: Boris Volynov Judith Resnick. Jeffrey Hoffman. Ellen Baker. Marsha Ivans. Jerome Apt, David Wolfe, Martin Fettman. John Grunsfeld. Scott Horowitz. Mark Polansky, Ilan Ramon, Garrett Reisman, Gregory Chamitoff, Yuri Shargrin, Jessica Meir. These are the early Jewish astronauts.

Now that we met the Jewish astronauts, I want to take some time to talk about the Jewish objects we know about which have been brought into space on these different missions. Now, I’m sure there are more Jewish objects than the ones I will list here. I am sure that there are more that are publicly known, and I know that there are more that are probably privately held because some of these objects are of such deeply personal, cultural, and religious or spiritual significance that it might not be something you ever want to have public even when you’re trying to speak out to a group of people who you want to support. But I want to go over these objects because it’s interesting. Some of it is even very funny, and some of it’s deeply sweet.

So, without further ado, the first object we’ll talk about is the dreidel that Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman brought with him and was spinning in the space shuttle. And the story about this dreidel is that one of his missions was during Hanukkah, and they had a live feed of the cabin, and the crew was hanging out. Dr. Hoffman was in the corner on the feed just spinning his dreidel, and whoever was MC’ing from Ground Control said, “we all want to know what you’re doing there, Jeffrey.” And so he told the whole story of Hanukkah. And the story and purpose of the dreidel is a really awesome and cool moment. I remember my kindergarten teacher telling us about that.

So the next object is a special Torah and yad that Dr. Hoffman brought with him as well. I’m not sure if it was on the same mission, but he was encouraged by his rabbis down on the ground in Houston to bring a Torah with him. A full size Torah was not going to work, given the high cost bringing payload into space. However, Torah was created, fabricated, was made available to Dr. Hoffman, and he brought it with him in the space. And he had a special passage while he was there. And it is now on display in the synagogue down in Houston. And I know all of this from watching the fantastic movie The Space Torah. You can find out more about it at SpaceTorahProject.com. The movie is done by executive producer Rachel Raz, who is a friend of Dr. Hoffman and a mentor at one point to me on this project. It’s a really great film. You should watch it.

So the next thing I want to talk about is another dreidel that David Wolf brought aboard the space shuttle. And he claims that his dreidel has spun more spinning, like, more miles in terms of how far it’s spun in that zero gravity situation than Doctor Hoffman did. We’ll, uh, just have to look at the NASA data to find out who’s correct. But David Wolf also brought some other objects. He, as well, brought a yad, a Torah reading yad. And he also brought a menorah, though he did not like the candles.

The next object I want to talk about is a teddy bear that was brought by Mark Polansky. Mark Polansky brought a teddy bear that was given to him by the US. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This teddy bear had belonged to a young person who perished in the Holocaust.

 Which is similar to Ilan Ramon, who brought a pencil drawing called Moon Landscape, which was done by a 14 year old boy who was killed in Auschwitz. Ilan Ramon also brought the microfiche of the Hebrew Bible that was like the size of a credit card, which was a gift to him from the President of Israel to bring with him.

So I want to end with an object I could have mentioned earlier, which is actually a mezuzah that Jeffrey Hoffman had brought aboard the space shuttle. And the space shuttle, they do what’s called hot bunking, where you’re going to share a bed with someone, but you’re scheduled at different hours. And so there’s not necessarily door posts and you can’t hammer up the mezuzah. So, he used Velcro to fix it to the corner in an area on his bunk, and when he’d leave, he’d take it off out of respect for the other crew mate who was using that space.

And at a certain point, Dr. Hoffman forgot about the mezuza, and his bunk mate noticed it and said, “hey, I love the mezuzah, it’s a nice touch.” And that’s when he realized Scott Horowitz is obviously Jewish. Like he knows that they’re Jewish. Why does he have to put away the mezuza? And it was this great sweet moment of two Jewish men and a Jewish object aboard the space shuttle. Not a joke in there, just sentimentality.

So those are the Jewish objects that I wanted to mention that were brought in the space. To briefly go over them, dr. Hoffman brought a dreidel and a torah. David Wolf, a yad, a menorah, and a dreidel. Mark Polansku brought a teddy bear from the US. Holocaust Museum. Dr. Hoffman also brought a mezuza that he shared at some point with Scott Horowitz. Ilon Ramon brought microfiche of the Hebrew Bible that was on a credit card and a pencil drawing called Moon Landscape by a 14 year old boy who was killed in Aushwitz.

 And those are the Jewish objects that we know about that have been in space. The space judaica, huh?

That’s a wrap for episode two of Space Midrash: which astronauts are Jewish?


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