Friday, December 19, 2014

Was Hanukkah celebrated aboard the Enterprise?

Is there any reference to Hanukkah in Star Trek?  Christmas is mentioned a couple times ("Dagger of the Mind" in TOS and the movie Generations), but was Hanukkah ever celebrated aboard the Enterprise?

For years there was a persistent rumor that Hanukkah was mentioned on The Next Generation series.  I heard it myself back in the 1990s.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be an urban legend -- although one that is based on an understandable mis-hearing of the script.  There is a reference to a "Festival of Lights," but it wasn't Hanukkah.  In my book Jewish Themes in Star Trek, I wrote:

Candles lit for the Jewish
Festival of Lights
"On several occasions, while writing this book, I was told that a Hanukkah party had indeed been mentioned in The Next Generation series.  Unfortunately, the story turned out to be nothing more
than another urban legend.  Its source was apparently the same 1991 Hadassah magazine article [see below] that I mentioned in Chapter 1, which stated: 'In a recent show, the ship's log recorded the celebration of -- among other esoteric and arcane observances, including a sort of Klingon bar mitzvah -- Hanukkah.'

Candles lit for the Hindu
Festival of Lights
"The 'recent episode' referenced in Teitelbaum's article was 'Data's Day' (TNG), which aired that same year.  But the festival recorded by Data in the ship's log was not Hanukkah.  It was Divali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which celebrates the god Rama's return to his kingdom. Teitelbaum had apparently heard the phrase 'Festival of Lights' (another name for Hanukkah), but missed the Hindu reference.  Still, if Divali is celebrated aboard the Enterprise-D, then it's reasonable to assume that Hanukkah is, too." (Jewish Themes in Star Trek, p. 30)


Hadassah is a major Jewish women's magazine, read by Jews of all denominations or lack thereof.  Unfortunately, their online archives do not go back to 1991, but if you have access to old print copies, the article was called "Is Star Trek Jewish?" by Sheldon Teitelbaum, and appeared in the December 1991 issue.   At that time, the episode in question was not yet released on VHS or DVD, so it's easy to understand how this error happened.  Teitelbaum mis-heard the log and had no easy way to double check it.  Apparently so many people then read his article that the "fact" of a Hanukkah celebration aboard the Enterprise entered the popular culture.  A generation later, it's still circulating.

I must admit that I was disappointed to find out there is no such reference -- at least not in canonical Trek.  (Alan Dean Foster's novelization of "The Ambergris Element" features the animated character  M'ress playing dreidel with her Jewish roomate at Starfleet Academy, but this scene was not in the actual episode.)  Still, if Scotty can wear a kilt and Worf can wear a Klingon sash, then why can't a Jew wear a yarmulke and light a menorah?  For that matter, why couldn't Jews get together on the holodeck for a Hanukkah celebration?

That would raise an interesting question:  Can you fulfill the mitzvah with holographic candles?  Probably not.  But we have seen Spock light real candles in his quarters, so that should not be a problem.  As for availability of candles in space, they could be replicated.

In fact, the lights would not have to be candles at all.  Nor must the menorah be the usual semi-circular shape.  Originally, rows of oil lamps were used, and some people today still use olive oil.  You can use anything to light the menorah, as long as it uses real fire (not electric bulbs, although the can be used as decorations to proclaim the miracle.)  The lights must burn the requisite amount of time (minimum of half an hour after sunset) and must burn out on their own (not blown out or otherwise extinguished) before the next night.

Which brings up another problem.  When is sunset on a spaceship?  My guess would be for the crew to do what Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon did for calculating the Sabbath aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia:  use Jerusalem time!  Just sychronize a chronometer with Israel back on Earth.

A decorative Star Trek Menorah with LED 
lights mounted on Trek Pez dispensers!  
(Courtesy of "The Evil Mad Scientist" website)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion launch brings back childhood memories of space race and missions

This morning I woke up at 5:50 AM, just in time to tune in and watch the launch of the Orion spacecraft at 6:05 (Central time).  This was both a big moment for NASA and a nostagic one for me.  The newscaster said this was the farthest out in space that the USA had sent a spacecraft since the last Apollo mission in 1973.  The thing is, I'm old enough to remember those Apollo flights, as well as the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs.

I grew up in the space era.  The sound barrier was broken by Chuck Jaeger on October 17, 1947, just 13 days before I was born.  (That was also the year of the supposed alien landing at Roswell in July.  It has always been a family joke that I'm weird because I got zapped by an alien mind beam.  I was in my mother's womb in California at the time, so who knows?)

Ten years later, Sputnik orbited the earth.  I can still remember the day that my father showed me the story in the morning paper.  The same paper had times listed for when you could see the tiny satellite cross the sky.  That was a big deal back then, as we went into the backyard to look for that pinpoint of light.

Then the space race was on, and every kid I knew (and a lot of adults, too) were tuned in to the space program.  Like everyone else, I went through a phase of wanting to be an astronaut.  That never happened, but I still fulfill my love of outer space with Star Trek and movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.  (I've lost track of how many times I've watched that movie, but I will say that Gene Kranz's line, "Failure is not an option!" has become a watchword around our house.  It's my favorite movie for how a group of people working together can achieve the seemingly impossible.)

"Earthrise" by Frank Borman
One of the interesting things about space flight back then was that the famous picture of Earth rising over the moon wasn't even on the original agenda.  Until the Apollo 8 astronauts actually saw that from the lunar orbit, nobody had thought to include it in the list of photographic goals because nobody could picture it.  But Frank Borman knew a good picture when he saw one, so he pointed the camera and clicked.  That photo -- as well as many others of the "blue marble" -- has become a universal symbol of the unity we might one day have on our planet.  It was no accident that the first Earth Day happened in April 1970, less than a year after the Apollo moon landing.

I was 22 and living in South Dakota when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.  People today who claim the moon landing was faked don't know what they are talking about.  Sure, the pix are fuzzy, but that's because the cameras and transmissions back then weren't a good as today.  But for those of us glued to our TV sets during the live transmission, there was no doubt it was real.  Cynics ask who was taking the photos of that first step, but the answer is simple:  The Eagle lander took them, the same as there was a camera on board Orion that took pix of the earth receding as the craft rose into the sky, etc.  No, my conspiracy theory friends, the Apollo moon walk was very real.

Photo of Mars showing a thin atmosphere.
What else will we discover there?
Today's Orion mission was a test flight for new equipment -- including a heat shield and a re-design of the Mercury-type capsule -- that may eventually be used for a trip to Mars.  A lot of people will ask, why go there?  It's so expensive, what do we get from it?

True, it is expensive.  But the technological  advances we got from previous space missions have long since paid for themselves.  One example being those thin, light, but very warm materials we now use for so many things.  (I've got a pair of winter boot liners made of the same stuff as astronaut space suits.)  Learning to put satellites in orbit has given us GPS, cell phones, global communications.  Etc.  And the quest for lighter payloads has given us smaller and smaller electronics.

So who knows what we will learn from the Mars mission?  I say, let's go!