If Dr. Garrett Reisman did not exist, then Mel Brooks or Woody Allen would have had to invent him. The veteran astronaut, who spent three straight months in space, looks like a character from a comedy about Jews in space: He is short, an engineer and full of self-deprecating humor that is often missing in astronauts.
Reisman, a native of New Jersey, is the first Jew to have lived in the International Space Station.
"The mission went pretty well, I did not break anything that was too expensive," he says. When he got to the space station, via the space shuttle Endeavor, he was quick to put up a mezuzah in the bunk where he slept.
"I did not consult any rabbi, so I hope I did not get into any trouble," he says.
Reisman is in Israel for the fourth Ilan Ramon International Space Conference, which is organized by the Science Ministry and the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
The NASA delegation will make a presentation on progress in its most ambitious project: sending humans to Mars. Its schedule is for a manned mission to Mars by 2030.
However, at this stage, there are still problems to be resolved. The round trip is expected to last at least three years and will require enormous amounts of food, water and fuel.
No less troubling is how best to assure the health of the crew while millions of kilometers from earth.
Dr. Johnston Smith, a medical officer at NASA, who is also visiting Israel, is one of those dealing with this challenge. "If someone experiences a standard medical problem, like appendicitis," he says, "a decision will need to be made on what to do. Therefore, on the voyage to Mars one of the crew will be a doctor and will have the means to undertake simple surgery."
Those traveling to Mars will also be away from family and friends for years. According to Johnston, the missions to the International Space Station are meant to build up experience in dealing with psychological dilemmas. Thus, for example, a year ago, NASA had to inform astronaut Daniel Tani, who was at the space station, that his mother had died in an accident.
"Every astronaut decides before a mission whether they want to know [such news] immediately or not. But on a voyage to Mars these questions will be more significant, and we need to think about how to deal with them," Johnston says.