Whether it is carrying astronauts or famous Jewish actors, when a rocket launches into space (or almost), many people pray for the wellbeing of whomever is in the capsule.
While in space, many speak to the deity of their choice as well, often thanking the creator for the glorious gift that is our earth.
During one of his five missions, MIT Professor Dr. Jeff Hoffman went one step further when he brought a Torah to space. The event was so pioneering and uplifting (literally) that a film has been made of it. On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, that film – Space Torah – will be presented at the Museum of Science (www.MoS.org) as part of the 33rd annual Boston Jewish Film Festival (www.bjff.org).
In addition to being the first astronaut to bring the Old Testament to space, Dr. Hoffman was also the first Jewish American to fly into space and the first to log 1,000 hours of flight during his five missions aboard the space shuttle. He also performed the first unplanned spacewalk (one of four) as part of a contingency plan to help with a repair of the famed Hubble Telescope.
When asked how he felt about Dr. Hoffman at first demurs but then takes the question higher.
“We really didn’t discuss religion much,” he says, referring to his ascent to becoming the first Jewish American man in space. After explaining that his rabbi had suggested he bring the Torah, Dr. Hoffman admits that he soon realized that “this was going to have some significance.”
While the Torah was a first for NASA, it was not the first Jewish object Dr. Hoffman had brought. In fact, he had brought some sort of religious symbol on each of his five missions. Among these were mezuzot, the neck bands (atarot) from his sons’ tallises, and even an
Israeli-designed dreidel for a mission that took place during Hanukkah.
“It just kept spinning,” Dr. Hoffman recalls of the zero-gravity game.
When a paper in Houston published a piece about how Dr. Hoffman used some of his precious cargo space for these precious items, he began to receive letters (“this was before email,” he explains) from all over the world.
“They told me it was meaningful to them,” Dr. Hoffman recalls. “I realized that this had a significance not just for me personally but for other Jewish people.”
Having grown up with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Sputnik and Alan Shepard, Dr. Hoffman was steeped in space culture from an early age.
Every American boy wanted to be an astronaut then, Dr. Hoffman says, noting that women were “unfortunately not allowed.”
At the time, most astronauts were military test pilots. Though he has often jumped out of planes, Dr. Hoffman had not flown one and did not see this as a viable path to NASA. After pursuing his PhD in high-energy astrophysics (which allowed him to study space), Dr. Hoffman heard about the Space Shuttle program and how each crew was to include seven astronauts but only two pilots.
“This opened up the opportunities for others,” he says, proudly noting that he was one of the 35 chosen from over 8,000 applicants for the very first group in 1978.
Dr. Hoffman received his PhD and parachuted multiple times but also climbed mountains and sailed across the North Sea. Dr. Hoffman was in great mental and physical shape and had “a lot of good things to talk about in my application.”
When asked what NASA looks for, Dr. Hoffman humbly responds, “They look for excellence in everything you do,” and adds, “I guess I
had enough of all of that so I made it in.”
On each mission, astronauts are only allowed to take 20 personal items, all of which must comply with strict size and weight limits. As a full-sized Torah was too big, Dr. Hoffman’s rabbi spent many months looking for a miniature version that was still kosher.
“That is what led to the Torah in space,” he says, recalling that he read from Bereishit (Genesis) which, he thought, was very appropriate because it speaks of the light coming from darkness and the creation of the earth.
Though the reading was recorded by one of Dr. Hoffman’s crewmates, the video footage was put on his computer and not seen for many years. In fact, it was not until he came to talk at Hebrew College in Newton that the idea of a film came up.
“Rachel Raz had never made a movie before,” Dr. Hoffman says of Hebrew College’s Early Childhood Institute director and Jewish Education Conference chair, “but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
After finding director Rob Cooper, Raz (who is scheduled to be part of a panel at the Museum of Science) began raising funds to make and distribute the film. Since then, it has been entered in over 30 international film festivals.
“Now we can share it with people all over the world,” Dr. Hoffman says, “which is ideal because it belongs to Jews all over the world!”