Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

It’s widely known that the first American Jewish woman in space was Judith Resnik, in 1984, but how many people are aware that the first American Jewish man in space was Jeffrey Hoffman, in 1996?

It’s generally well known that Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon brought a microfiche copy of the Torah with him aboard the doomed space shuttle Columbia in 2003, but how many are cognizant of the fact that Hoffman brought an actual Sefer Torah with him into space?


As a Holocaust commemoration, Ramon also brought a barbed wire mezuzah, created by artist Aimee Golant, on his space mission, but did you know that in 2008 NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff took mezuzot shaped like rockets onto the International Space Station, where he affixed them to the doorpost of his cabin? He is also the first person know to have taken bagels into space –18 (chai) of them, all sesame seed.

So maybe you know that Ramon brought a dollar bill from the Lubavitcher Rebbe aboard the Columbia, but did you know that American astronaut David Wolf spun a dreidel inside the International Space Station? According to Wolf, “I probably have the record dreidel spin…it went on for about an hour and a half …and I figure it went 25,000 miles.”

Garrett Reisman, who was the first Jew on the International Space Station, called President Shimon Peres from the station on Israel’s 60th anniversary. Peres was later quoted as saying that he received greetings from heads of state all over the world, but he was moved the most by the greetings he got from the Jewish astronaut in space.

As of this writing, there have been 14 Jewish astronauts (including three women) – twelve from the U.S. and one each from Israel and the old Soviet Union. There are many interesting aviation and space stories with a Jewish angle. The following four are from my collection, and while the first doesn’t involve a Jewish astronaut, it does feature the prime minister of Israel.

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Singer 062317 Exhibit 1Shown here is a March 22, 1971 note written by Golda Meir on her Prime Minister’s letterhead to Donn Eisele, a non-Jewish U.S. astronaut, in which she thanks him for sending a photograph of Israel taken from space:

I was indeed very much pleased and moved to receive the historic photograph of Israel taken by you and Astronauts Walter Schirra and Walter Cunningham during the Apollo 7 flight of October 1967. I shall always treasure the photograph as a memento of a great venture.

Apollo 7 – the first manned mission in the Apollo program – was an eleven-day Earth-orbital project, the first manned launch of the Saturn IB launch vehicle, and the first three-man American space mission. The crew (originally the backup crew of the ill-fated Apollo 1) included Walter Schirra as commander; Donn Eisele as command module pilot; and Walter Cunningham as lunar module pilot.

The mission featured the first live television broadcast from an American spacecraft, confirmed the space-worthiness of the Apollo vehicle, and led directly to the decision to launch Apollo 8, which in December 1968 became the first crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon and return to earth. (Apollo 11 would be the first spaceflight to actually land men on the moon, in July 1969.)

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Though little known today, Harry Richman (1895 – 1972) holds a strange place in aviation history as the co-pilot, principal financier – and very nearly the destroyer – of the so-called Ping-Pong Flight, the first round-trip flight across the Atlantic Ocean, which took 12 days in September 1936. (Until then, transatlantic flights by the likes of Charles Lindbergh and Emelia Earhart had been one way affairs, with return trips made by ship.)

He was also a brash and carefree millionaire entertainer, singer, actor, dancer, comedian, pianist, songwriter, bandleader, and nightclub performer who was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s and best known for his “Follies” productions.Singer 062317 Exhibit 2

Shown on this page is a sentiment handwritten by Richman: “To `Edoline’ My very best always. Sincerely, Harry Richman, 1931 Follies”

In 1936, famed aviator Dick Merrill learned that Richman had purchased an ex-TWA single-engine Vultee transport plane and, determined to make the first round-trip crossing of the Atlantic, suggested they work together. Richman, as co-pilot, would eventually put about $360,000 of his own money into the project, dubbed Lady Peace, and he famously stuffed about 40,000 Ping-Pong balls into the wings and fuselage for use as flotation insurance.

Singer 062317 Exhibit 3Shown here is an original news photograph of Richman sitting in the Lady Peace before takeoff.

The historic return flight nearly went down in disaster when Richman, misinterpreting a statement by Merrill, panicked and dumped almost all the remaining fuel over the Atlantic. The aircraft ended up on a mountain slope in Port Jervis, New York, about 50 miles short of its Newark destination; the crash caused relatively little damage but the impact took out several of Merrill’s front teeth. Upon his arrival at the scene of the crash, Eastern Airlines honcho Eddie Rickenbacker had to literally pull an enraged Merrill off Richman.

Richman, born Harold Reichman to Russian Jewish parents, was already a professional vaudeville entertainer at age 18, having worked as a piano accompanist to stars such as Mae West, who gave him his first big break. After co-writing his first #1 song, “Muddy Water” (1926), he appeared in several editions of George White’s “Scandals of 1926” and made his feature film debut in Hollywood with “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1930), featuring the Irving Berlin song of the same title, which gave him a hit record that year. (“Ritz” was just selected by the National Recording Preservation Board to be included in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.]

Though his film career was short lived due to his somewhat abrasive personality, his limited acting skills, and the limited appeal of his Jewish dialect characterizations, he remained a popular nightclub host and stage performer.

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Singer 062317 Exhibit 4

Shown here is a postal cover canceled September 29, 1967 and signed by Cosmonaut Boris Valentinovich Volynov, ironically commemorating U.S. space achievements. While Judith Resnik and Ilan Ramon are the two most famous Jews linked to space travel, Volynov was actually the first Jew in space. He commanded the Soyuz Five, the first space vehicle to effect a docking and transfer of personnel between ships, in 1969. (There are some who maintain that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was Jewish, but the claim has been disproved.)

Volynov was born in Birobidzhan, the “Jewish Autonomous Region” created by Stalin. His mother was Jewish, which would have a significant adverse impact on his career. A graduate of the Soviet Military Engineering Academy and among the first twenty to join the Soviet space program (1960), he nonetheless was bumped from a mission aboard the Voskhod 1 just three days before its scheduled launch because the State Commission discovered his mother’s Jewishness.

His Jewish identity impeded his progress in the space program until 1969, when he was aboard Soyuz 5 following an orbital docking with Soyuz 4. As the lone pilot on the returning mission, he experienced one of the most harrowing space accidents in history, the Russian equivalent of the American Apollo 13, during which astronauts abandoned a moon landing and improvised a way back to Earth after an on-board explosion.

During the historic docking, Volynov’s two comrades had successfully transferred to Soyuz 4, in which they returned to Earth. However, Soyuz 5’s service module failed to separate completely after retrofire and, once the ship reached Earth’s outer atmosphere, a positioning problem upon re-entry threatened to melt the hatch with searing heat during the descent and incinerate everything inside.

Luckily, the descent module was able to right itself and ward off the consuming heat, but even then Volynov’s life-threatening ordeal was not over: due to a failure of the soft landing rockets, his touchdown – in the snowy Ural Mountains – was far more difficult than usual, causing him to break numerous teeth.

Volynov’s ordeal was an official Soviet “state secret” until the 1990s, and he publicly shared his experiences on the near-fatal Soyuz 5 mission during his first visit to the United States, during which he also visited the Kennedy Space Center (2006).

Volynov’s second flight – aboard Soyuz 21 in 1976 – was also a life-threatening experience as a nitric acid fume incapacitated his flight partner, Vitali Zholobov. Affected by the fumes himself, he saved his partner by loading him into his attached Soyuz. Again, after re-entry he showed great heroism by returning to his capsule and removing his comrade. He was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin.

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Singer 062317 Exhibit 5Shown here is an LBJ Space Center cover, “NASA names 8th group of candidates for Space Shuttle program,” canceled January 16, 1978 and signed by Judith Resnik.

Though Resnik in 1984 became the second American woman to travel in space – Sally Ride was the first – she is perhaps better known as the first Jewish woman in space. Though she grew up in a Jewish community, attended Hebrew School at Akron’s Beth El Congregation, and was bat-mitzvahed, she was not religiously observant and hated being defined as a “Jewish astronaut.”

Nonetheless, her space flights engendered novel and interesting halachic questions, such as “When would Judith Resnik light Shabbat candles?” She reportedly consulted a rabbi about lighting Shabbat candles aboard the Space Shuttle and – since an open flame was obviously prohibited – was advised to use electric lights at the proper hour corresponding to the onset of Shabbat at Mission Control in Houston. Before leaving for her first flight on STS 41-D, she visited her rabbi, who recited tefillat haderech, the traditional Jewish blessing before commencing a journey, with her.

Resnik’s grandparents had emigrated from Ukraine to Eretz Yisrael in 1924 and in 1929 came to the United States, where her grandfather worked as a schochet and her father served as a special High Holidays cantor at Beth Israel Synagogue in Washington. Judy, who was born in Akron in 1940, earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland before working on circuitry for specialized radar systems for RCA.

She went on to serve as a biomedical engineer and staff fellow in the laboratory of neurophysiology at NIH and then with the Xerox Corporation, before completing a one-year training and evaluation period with NASA, which assigned her to work on a number of projects in support of Orbiter development, including experiment software and training techniques.

Resnik first flew as a mission specialist on STS 41-D, the maiden flight of the orbiter Discovery, which launched from the Kennedy Space Center on August 30, 1984. The crew earned the name “Icebusters” when they successfully removed hazardous ice particles from the orbiter using the RMS, which Resnik had helped develop. STS 41-D completed 96 orbits of the earth before landing, and Resnik logged 144 hours and 57 minutes in space.

On January 28, 1986, millions of people saw Resnik on television as she walked aboard the Challenger along with her six crewmates, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who’d been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. The Challenger was launched from the Kennedy Space Center at 11:38 a.m., and Resnik and the entire Challenger crew died about a minute later when the spacecraft exploded.

Anti-Semitic lunatics still claim the flights of the Challenger (Resnik) and Columbia (Ilan Ramon) both ended tragically because there were Jews aboard who sabotaged the missions.