SAUDI ARABIA, July 21, 2019 (Arab News, by Nidhal Guessoum, professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE): Now that we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first human moon landing, the religious or spiritual experiences of astronauts in space are worth noting and reflecting upon. This is not limited to those who journeyed to the moon but rather extends to the many astronauts who have spent some time in space, particularly on the International Space Station (ISS). It also extends to various faiths: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and possibly others.
John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, said he prayed every day on his spaceflights. "To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible," Glenn told reporters in 1998, just after returning from his final trip to space at the age of 77. "It just strengthens my faith."
During the historic first moon landing of Apollo 11, shortly before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out for their walk, Aldrin addressed the people on Earth: "I would like to request a few moments of silence... and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours (the extraordinary landing), and to give thanks in his or her own way." He then took out his crucifix and prayed.
In his book, "Magnificent Desolation," which was published in 2009, Aldrin wrote: "Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind -- be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievement, a deeper meaning -- a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, and out there."
A number of other astronauts related the spiritual experience that space induced in them. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell spoke of experiencing "interconnected euphoria." He said: "Something happens to you out there."
On Apollo 15, Jim Irwin, who was a non-practicing Protestant, was "touched by grace." And, upon his return to Earth, he founded an evangelical movement and embarked on a search for Noah's Ark.
From his Apollo 17 trip, Gene Cernan, who had been a Catholic nominally, came back convinced that there must be a God to explain the beauty and perfection of the universe. He said: "There is too much purpose, too much logic. It was too beautiful to happen by accident. There has to be somebody bigger than you, and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense."
It is not surprising that devout astronauts would express their varied religiosity in space, particularly in those extraordinary moments. What is more remarkable is that many had a spiritual experience from the cosmic awe they enjoyed in space. Indeed, space makes us feel small yet significant, and connects us to the divine.