Space, security and religion

What do space, security and religion have in common? During the summer 2016, one unique country was instrumental in tying those concepts together — Israel. Israel put itself in the spotlight as it hosted for two months the 29th International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Program (SSP) at the Israel Institute of Technology, Technion, in Haifa.

The SSP program gathers each year around 100 participants from over 30 countries: students from different fields, space professionals and other space enthusiasts; plus nearly another 100 staff: teaching associates, academic and logistic coordinators, core lecturers who stay throughout the program; plus many guest experts visiting for shorter periods. This year’s SSP had many firsts: first time in the Middle East, first ISU space selfie (see the gif below), first ISU drone on a stratospheric balloon.

Spending two months in Haifa as teaching associate for one of the SSP projects (Space Big Data) was an expectedly intense and inspiring team work experience. In addition to that, you learn that Mideastern Israel is more Western than you would guess and a much safer country than you would expect… You find that many more people holding diverse positions in the space field are religious than you would anticipate, and you get reminded by the well-preserved archeology around Israel that our space age takes only permilles of time elapsed since past civilisations have flourished here.

First ISU space selfie, taken by the EROS-B satellite operated by ImageSat International

If you were a bit worried before coming to Israel after reading many recent news about conflicts in the region, then you would start rethinking your image of what being safe means. During our stay, no major incidents happened in Israel, while at the same time in the ‘safe’ parts of the world, where many of us came from, several larger attacks took place: Nice Bastille day and Normandy church attacks in France, Munich shooting and Ansbach bombing in Germany. And if you have an Israeli friend who was five minutes from the Chelsea explosion while visiting New York at the time when this attack recently happened, then these questions are just reinforced in your mind.

SSP16 class photo with ISU Chancellor Edwin Buzz Aldrin. Photo credit: Nitzan Zohar

Spending time in Israel, I have learnt, is inevitably going to involve more religious experiences (in Serbian) and talking about religion than in many Western countries. How could it not be, when literally in each part of the country you find one of the holiest places for one of the three Abrahamic religions, and when sometimes, not being well informed you might even visit one of them without knowing it? Jerusalem, both Old and New Towns built only in stone, a central pilgrim destination for many people across the globe, reminds us of unity on several levels. First, it hosts the holiest places for Christians (the Church of Holy Sepulchre) and Jewish (Temple Mount) and the third most holy for Muslims (Al-Aqsa Mosque). Second, The Church of Holy Sepulchre is simultaneum mixtum (a church in which public worship is conducted by adherents of two or more religious groups) of different Christian denominations: Greek, Syriacs, Egyptian Copts, Ethiopians and Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic, in addition to having Muslim doorkeepers (in Russian).

View of Old Town Jerusalem, Israel

When one of the projects in SSP is investigating the state of our current possibilities for establishing human settlement on Mars (aMarte); when another is exploring the use of artificial gravity technology (Startport1) to support human space exploration; when our evening guest lecture talks about the Breakthrough Initiatives, aimed at finding evidence of technological life beyond Earth, and about light-powered space travel to Alpha Centauri… then the topics of space and religion touch, blur and spark in your mind. You get reminded that we humans have not forgotten our deepest, eternal longing questions: who are we, where does our world come from, are we alone, where do we go…? We, as humanity, are trying to answer these and many other fundamental questions from different angles and perspectives, that maybe sometimes intersect and meet…

Bringing security back to perspective, you hope that these space visions even more grandiose than the Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and the ones inspired by the Blue Marble will remind, if not us then our descendants, how the only security we should think of in the future should be our common one in the vast universe of possibilities. You choose how hopeful you want to be.