Fasting in space? UAE astronaut aboard ISS sees 16 sunsets daily

How does one follow earthly religious practices when staying in outer space?
Ameya Paleja
Expedition 68 Astronaut Sultan Alneyadi during a QNA with students in Dubai on March 21.
Expedition 68 Astronaut Sultan Alneyadi during a QNA with students in Dubai on March 21.


Over the 30 days, as the sun sets over the western horizon, Muslims across the world will break their day-long fast. For centuries, this religious tradition has been followed the world over during the month of Ramadan.

However, for Sultan Alneyadi, the sun will set 16 times in a span of 24 hours, making it difficult to observe his fast.

41-year-old Alneyadi isn't living on a different planet but isn't technically on Earth either. As you read this, Alneyadi is traveling at 17,000 miles (27,600 kilometers) per hour onboard the International Space Station (ISS) as the second astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.

His scheduled six-month-long stay at the ISS presents an opportunity to discuss the future of religious practices in the space age.

How astronauts follow religions in space

While faith is a personal matter that no space agency or government needs to dictate terms about, how to observe it or follow religious practices while in space is something that warrants a much larger discussion.

The interpretation of religious texts and practices is often done by religious leaders who now have a new challenge since the world is rapidly changing.

This is not something that has gained attention due to Alneyadi's trip. Way back in 2007, Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was the first practicing Muslim to stay on the ISS.

The country's national Islamic council offered him relief from kneeling on the ground while praying - a tough feat to achieve when in zero gravity.

Fasting in space? UAE astronaut aboard ISS sees 16 sunsets daily
Zero gravity and multiple sunrises can change the perception of day for an astronaut

Quite a number of astronauts have been Jewish, who, as per religious practices, need to observe Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. This usually falls on a Saturday when an individual refrains from all work-related activity.

This is hard to imagine on the ISS, where astronauts are tasked with conducting hundreds of experiments or carrying out maintenance activities during their stay.

Similarly, observing the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur would require an astronaut to avoid using electricity or traveling in airspace, which is extremely difficult when in a spacecraft.

Religious heads have found solutions like observing a day over three days, depending on the location of the spacecraft. In the case of Alneyadi, he fits the definition of a "traveler," which exempts him from fasting while onboard the ISS.

If he wants to, he can also follow the Greenwich Mean Time, the official time zone of the space station, and follow his religious commitments.

Moments before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969, his crew mate Buzz Aldrin quietly took communion with a bite of bread and sip of wine, he had carried from Houston, the NASA website confirms.

There are always pockets of personal space where astronauts can follow their religion, even as they follow their scientific pursuits.