A Jew on Mars?

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 17, 2006, issue of March 17, 2006.
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When Jason Sherwin told his parents he wanted to be an astronaut, they weren’t thrilled. Jews, they reminded him, “don’t have a good track record” in outer space.

Notwithstanding the “Jews in Space” bit from Mel Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I,” they’re right.

Arguably, the first Jewish astronaut was Elijah. According to the Bible, “a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared… and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” He didn’t come back down.

In modern times, the first Jew in space, Judith Resnick, died in the Challenger explosion of 1986. In 2003, Ilan Ramon of Israel died when the space shuttle Columbia broke up.

So, Sherwin’s parents may rest a bit easier to know that his first mission is only as far as Utah.

On March 18, Sherwin and the other eight members of Crew 47 will move for two weeks into the Mars Desert Research Station, an 8-meter-wide, 8-meter-high cylinder in the Utah desert. Funded by a private, nonprofit organization called the Mars Society, the MDRS has been used since 2001 to simulate and test the conditions for future manned space flight to Mars. Serving under commander Jan Osberg, Sherwin and seven other Georgia Tech students will make astronomical observations, monitor radiation levels (Sherwin’s specialty), and observe the psychological and cognitive effects of sticking nine people in a small, airlocked space in the desert for two weeks.

Sherwin is not the first Jew to work in the MDRS — Israel’s Shahar Lazar spent two weeks there in January 2003 — but he has found that Jews are a rare breed in the realm of aerospace engineering.

Sherwin’s parents have stuck with more traditional Jewish occupations. His father, Rabbi Byron Sherwin, is a professor and former vice president at Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. He is also, apparently, something of a fantasist: His first novel, “The Cubs and the Kabbalist,” is subtitled, “How a Kabbalah-Master Helped the Chicago Cubs Win Their First World Series Since 1908.” The book is due out at the beginning of April. Jason’s mother, Judith, is a lawyer and a “crazy Cubs fan,” her son said.

Still, there have been a few Jewish space success stories. During his 1996 flight on the Columbia, astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman read from a scroll known as the “Space Torah,” which is now in circulation (though not in orbit) at Houston’s Congregation Or Hadash. David Wolf spent more than four consecutive months on the Mir space station in 1997 and 1998, during which he celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. “I probably have the record dreidel spin,” he told Hadassah magazine. “It went for about an hour-and-a-half.”

Meanwhile, NASA is gearing up to go back to the moon, and, eventually, to Mars.

Jews on Mars? Stay tuned.

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