Russian Cosmonauts Keep Bringing Icons, Relics, and Crosses to Space - A Priest Explains Why

This is a fascinating article which demonstrates again how Christian culture is reaching into every facet of Russian life, even the space program, which was so famously used by Communist ideologues to prove atheism. It turns that there is a remarkable church at the astronaut training center, and many Christians among the astronauts, and the community has a close relationship with Russia's most important monastery, Holy Trinity, in nearby Sergiev Posad.

This article is machine translated, so there may be some  inaccuracies. Link to original Russian at the world's largest Orthodox website, Russia's Pravoslavie.ru.


By monk Pafnuty (Fokin)

The  relics of more than one hundred saints are kept in the church of the transfiguration at Star City, (a neighborhood in the Moscow suburbs where training centers are located, where astronauts have been trained since the 1950s, and where many astronauts and related personnel live and work), much of which was given by the builder of the church, Anatoly Kuznetsov. Some of these relics have been taken into space.

Training capsules at Star City

The Soyuz TMA-16 spaceship was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome 13 years ago on September 30, 2009. On board were the commander of the crew, Maxim Surayev, along with astronaut Jeffrey Williams (USA) and space tourist Guy Laliberte (Canada). With the blessing of Abbot Iov (Talatz), abbot of the church in Star City, Maxim took a piece of the Holy Cross with him into orbit. During this six-month expedition the first liturgy in the church was performed, and a year later, in the fall of 2010, the Great Consecration of the church by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill took place.


The church of the transfiguration at Star City


Video of the church and the area

In the same year there was established a unique, one-of-a-kind four-tier carved iconostasis, made of Siberian cedar by the hereditary carver from Krasnoyarsk region Rodion Islamov. This kind of Crucifix was made by the artist not only for the parish at Star City, but also for several other churches, including the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The crucifix in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, was originally located in the funeral chapel. At the  present time it is in the lower, Transfiguration church of the Cathedral.

Interior of the church

Once, while a crucifix was being made for a church being built at the Boguchanskaya hydroelectric power plant in Siberia, Anatoly Kuznetsov with the rector and architect came to see how the work was progressing. Kuznetsov remarked that the Face of the Savior looked more like the Father Superior, to which the architect carelessly threw: "Who has seen Him, the Savior?" After these words, he suddenly, on a flat spot, fell and was badly hurt, as if someone with an invisible hand had knocked him down. After that, the stunned Rodion immediately set about redoing the face, and when it was suggested to him not to hurry, because there were other important matters, he replied: "Did you see how the architect was thrown? We'd better get it done soon, so we don't fall into any hole." It is noteworthy that Rodion was baptized during the construction of the church.

Soviet atheist propaganda often referred to the conquest of space as proof of the victory of science over religious superstition. The words, written by the famous Communist poet Mayakovsky, say 'We inspected the heavens inside and out, and found no Gods and no angels.'

In addition to a piece of the Holy Sepulchre, there were many other relics in space. Most often parts of relics of Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker were taken into orbit. Why did it happen that way? One of the reasons is that since 2007, according to the resolution of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, the temple of Transfiguration of Our Lord in Star City is under the spiritual care of the brotherhood of the Holy Trinity Sergius monastery (Russia's main and most important monastery, not far from Star City).


The church in Star City holds send-offs and meetings of astronauts, and organizes trips to Holy Trinity monastery with a prayer service at the relics of St. Sergius for crew members on the eve of their departure for Baikonur. The faithful cosmonauts especially venerate the Venerable Sergius, so it is not surprising that in outer space they want to be under his protection and patronage. For the first time a piece of the relics of the Venerable Sergius visited outer space in 2008. For half a year it was in orbit with the crew of spaceship "Soyuz TMA-13". Crew commander Yuri Lonchakov twice went into space with it. It was the first relic of the temple under construction and was placed in orbit.

St Nicholas aboard the International Space Station

The relics of St. Nicholas are a special story. During his third expedition to International Space Station (ISS) in 2009 Yuri Lonchakov took onboard icons of St. Nicholas. Upon returning to Earth, Lonchakov, along with Father Job, made a pilgrimage to Venice and Bari. They presented the icons that had been in orbit around the Earth as a gift to the churches in these cities. The leaders of Bari and the abbot of St. Nicholas Basilica, a Catholic priest Damiano Bova, in return presented the Star City church with the Ark of Peace and a piece of the wooden casket in which St. Nicholas' relics were transported from Myra in Lycia to Bari in 1087, - with the condition that it will be in space and will travel around the Earth. This holy relic had been in orbit for half a year with the crew of Fyodor Yurchikhin and had been to outer space twice.

An icon in space

Also parts of the relics of the Great Martyrs Theodore Tyrone and Theodore Stratilat, Holy Great Martyr George, St. Seraphim of Sarov, Sts. Peter and Philip, Metropolitans of Moscow, and many other relics visited orbit. It should be noted that some of the relics and books are permanently on board the International Space Station (ISS). There is a whole stack of books, icons, photos, clippings from Orthodox magazines, as well as the cross, on board - the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II (the previous head of the Russian church). The cross was given to Anatoli Perminov, the head of Roscosmos (Russia's equivalent of NASA), who handed it to the crew of Soyuz TMA-8. The ship with this holy relic on board was launched March 30, 2006. Since then, the cross is always in a prominent place - on the panel of the service module of the Russian segment of the ISS.

Icons on the wall of the International Space Station

A surprising fact: one of the crew members was Jeffrey Williams (US), the same astronaut who was on the crew that brought a piece of the Holy Cross to the ISS three years later in 2009. Even before his space career began, Jeffrey, who had twice delivered the Cross into orbit, converted to Christianity and became a Protestant preacher - such a remarkable fate...

Most of the icons, a kind of icon wall, are placed in the large diameter of the service module. The Kazan icon of the Mother of God given by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill at the end of the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on March 13, 2011 to the crew members of the Soyuz TMA-21 of the ISS-27 expedition - Alexander Samokutyaev, Andrei Borisenko and Ron Garan. His Holiness Patriarch Kirill then admonished the crew with these words:

"May the cover of the Blessed Queen of Heaven extend over our troubled, conflict-ridden world, in which there is so much sorrow and human grief. In this sense, Russian cosmonauts, in addition to their very difficult and important professional duties, will also carry out a kind of spiritual mission".

So why do cosmonauts take sacred things with them into space?

When in difficult moments people of faith turn to God, the Holy Virgin, and the saints, to feel support, to calm down, to get help and strengthening. It is difficult to imagine what an astronaut feels, being between the sky and the Earth for a long time, literally in a suspended state, but it is possible to assume, that looking at the icon or touching the saint helps to concentrate, correctly estimate the situation, to feel the help from above, a burst of energy - in other words, the saints in space, as in usual life, help people to live and work. Moreover, with their blessed power they sanctify the space station space and who knows how many accidents and unpleasant moments were prevented by the help of God, by the intercession of the Most Holy Mother of God and saints...

Another Soviet area atheist propaganda poster. The text reads: 'There is no God'

Astronauts are not the only ones who take holy things into space. Russian submarine crews also do not go on expeditions without an Orthodox Christian item on their ship. There are known cases when priests hold prayers not on the ground but in the air with sacred objects on board.

For example, in September 1999, a series of terrorist acts occurred in Russian cities. The Pskov Airborne Division was in Chechnya at the time, and it was decided to conduct an airborne procession to prevent tragic situations. On September 29, 1999, Archpriest Oleg Theor, the abbot of the Pskov military church, together with his assistants, as well as officers, representing the various branches of the Pskov military, and students of the Pskov Religious School, performed an air procession over the city of Pskov. They took with them the Surdegh icon of the Mother of God. At an altitude of 800 meters above Pskov, the priest was tied to the doors, leaving his hands free. The plane began to make circles over Pskov, and father Oleg sprinkled the city with holy water through the open door of the plane. By the grace of God, the threats remained only threats, and no acts of terrorism took place in Pskov after the procession. And on April 2, 2020, Fr. Elijah (Nozdrin) and Deacon Iliodor (Gariyants) flew around Moscow and St. Petersburg by plane with prayers to stop the pernicious plague - the coronavirus infection...

We know that during epidemics, wars, internecine strife, or, on the contrary, during holidays and commemorative events, people go with icons and prayer, each with his own aspiration, joy or trouble. In the same way, a religious object, traveling around the planet in a spaceship, is a visible symbol of our prayer for the whole world. Of course, it does not become closer to God, does not become more graceful and miraculous due to the fact that it is in space ... However, astronauts returning from the mission return it to the church with gratitude and reverence, and with the awareness that the mission, the work done during the expedition and the scientific experiments were done for the glory of God.

Valery Korzun, a cosmonaut and test-pilot, and an elder of the Church of the Transfiguration in Star City, claims that there has never been an space flight without some kind of religious item taken onboard. Most often astronauts take the Holy Scripture, Psalter, prayer book, small paper icons to the space.

According to Korzun, "to begin the day in orbit is necessary to start with God's blessing, prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. After all, turning to the saints depicted on icons gives tranquility, a peaceful spirit and confidence in the future".

End