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Why astronauts get slapped in the face with a cross before going to space

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Because religion. And geopolitics

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Astronauts leave nothing to chance, and alongside the checks and double-checks carried out before a rocket launches, there's a clutch of rituals that have taken root in the world of space travel. Perhaps the oddest of these (at least visually) is the official blessing dished out by a priest from the Russian Orthodox Church. American astronauts, Russian cosmonauts, and even rockets all go through this, with photos from NASA's official photographer showing that the same bearded and gowned official has been carrying out the ritual with gusto for a few years now.

He clearly gets a kick out of it.

For the cosmonauts it's a bit of a scrub-up before space.

And even the photographers get in on the action: "You get a blessing, and you get a blessing, and you get a blessing!"

Now, it's not quite clear when this particular tradition began. It certainly wouldn't have taken place under the officially atheist Soviet state, but Russians have embraced religion in recent years (not least of all thanks to Vladimir Putin, who benefits from the support of the Moscow Patriarchate), and it seems at some point, the Church got invited to the space party. It may seem a little at odds with the whole science-and-logic scene, but it's better safe than sorry, right?

Some patriotic Americans might object to the practice but for the US, there's not much choice. Ever since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA has relied upon Russia's Soyuz rockets and its Baikonur Cosmodrome to transport men and women up to the International Space Station — and a bit of holy water is a small price to pay.

Other space rituals include planting trees and (possibly) urinating on a tire

And blessings are far from the only ritual to take place at Baikonur. After all, this is the place that launched both the first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1) and the first human to travel to outer space (Yuri Gagarin). As well as getting a visit from a priest, cosmonauts and astronauts contribute to an avenue of trees planted before each mission, and watch the same pre-flight movie before takeoff (a cult Russian "Western" from 1969). The Russian cosmonauts also reportedly urinate on the back right-hand wheel of the bus that takes them to the launch pad — a tradition started by Gagarin himself before his first flight. Thankfully, this (possibly apocryphal) ritual is less well documented than the blessings.

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