Astronaut Garrett E. Reisman — the first Jewish crew member of the International Space Station — says that his most mystical moment in space came when he first saw the earth's atmosphere.
"My religious moment wasn't seeing the earth from space, although that was incredible," said the 41-year-old native of Morristown, N.J. "It was seeing the thin blue atmosphere that was magical for me. You can think of it as skin on an apple or the fuzz on a tennis ball. Then you realize the earth is much more fragile than we imagine. Yet as thin as the atmosphere is, it's still thicker than the ocean is at its deepest point."
Reisman related other tales of his 102 days in space (95 aboard the ISS) in 2008 in an hourlong talk last week at the University of Pennsylvania, where he did his undergraduate work.
Reisman also spoke of a trip to Israel in 2006 to meet Rona Ramon, widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, with whom Reisman was friends, and who lost his life with the other six astronauts on board when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003.
Rona Ramon gave Reisman a few of her husband's personal effects, which he noted that he carried into space with him.
Reisman also sent a greeting from space to honor Israel's 60th anniversary in May 2008.
The amiable astronaut displayed a natural ease and sense of humor throughout his talk, which included a film and a number of slides, as when he mentioned that as an April Fool's Day joke, mission control was told that a mutiny to take over the ISS was in progress.
And he confided that it wasn't until his fifth year of study that the idea of trying to become an astronaut first crept into his head: "Even if it was a long shot — no pun intended — I decided to apply, but really had no interest in doing this as a kid."
He was selected by NASA as a mission specialist in June 1998. After completing astronaut candidate training, he was assigned to the Astronaut Office Robotics Branch at Houston's Johnson Space Center, where he worked on the ISS robotic arm.
Life aboard the station centered around work, work, work, he said, with spaceships from several nations coming and going almost continually.
"We didn't get a lot of time aboard for ourselves. Since we were there at the very peak of space-station construction, there was a spaceship about every 10 days. And with a full work schedule, we didn't get to sleep on time very often," said Reisman.
Moreover, two hours of every day was devoted to exercise, for 1 percent of bone density is lost per month in zero gravity.
During his months aboard the space station — in effect, an orbiting laboratory — he performed a spacewalk that lasted more than seven hours, executing numerous tasks with the station's robotic arm and installing Dextre, the new Canadian robotic manipulator.
Some advice for kids thinking of becoming astronauts?
Youths who have an interest "in space technology and exploration should study math and science because that knowledge is necessary for space — and for the future good of the U.S.," said Reisman, who noted that NASA receives about 5,000 astronaut applications a year.
A vital requirement, he stated, is the ability to "live with others in close quarters for, say, six months. How well someone plays with others is a critical consideration."