I have been an avid follower of the NASA program and followed its missions since childhood. So I found this last one particularly poignant.
The shuttle Endeavour and space station crews gathered on Saturday for an unprecedented conversation with Pope Benedict, who asked how the space program could promote peace and if the astronauts prayed while in orbit.
“I think it must be obvious to you how we all live together on one Earth and how absurd it is that we fight and kill each one,” the Pope said.
“When you are contemplating the Earth from up there, do you ever wonder about the way nations and people live together down here, about how science can contribute to the cause of peace?” he asked via a televised link from the Vatican.
This is a sweet story. The pope spoke with members of the crew about their own personal dramas as they carry out this universal one. (funny…the word catholic means universal…but I was referring to the nature of the space mission) Personal dramas like commander Mark Kelly’s, whose wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is still recovering from being shot in January. Kelly thanked Benedict for thinking of her.
The Pope also had a personal message for space station flight engineer Paolo Nespoli, whose mother died on May 2.
“How have you been living through this time of pain on the International Space Station? Do you feel isolated and alone, or do you feel united amongst ourselves in a community that follows you with attention and affection?” the pope asked, speaking in Nespoli’s native Italian.
“Holy Father, I felt your prayers and everyone’s prayers arriving up here,” Nespoli replied in Italian.
“My colleagues aboard the space station were very close to me at this important time, for me a very intense moment,” Nespoli said. “I felt very far but also very close.”
Astronaut Roberto Vittori, also from the Italian Space Agency, demonstrated microgravity by flipping a coin given to him by the Pope, a symbol of the Vatican’s involvement in the mission, the next-to-last for NASA’s space shuttle program.
The coin will be returned to the Pope after Endeavour lands, now scheduled for June 1.
“To live aboard the International Space Station, to work as an astronaut is extremely intense, but we all have an opportunity when the nights come to look out and, more, to look down at Earth. Our planet, the blue planet, is beautiful,” Vittori said.
“I do pray,” he added. “I do pray for me, for our families, for our future.”
This story is amazingly human, and global, and larger than each of us. Because it’s about what holds together all of us. And I know that sounds corny, but….
I’ve said it here on this blog before, a while back, that a long time ago I was thinking about ‘fanhood’ and loyalty to a small town school or sports team, then a larger one…and how the rivalries disappear and new alliances form when those circumferences spread to wider territories. The ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ grows into much larger bodies of individuals the bigger the contest and state or nation. Then my thoughts rolled forward to an odd idea….that one imaginable force that would cause otherwise hostile factions on earth to suddenly unify as a planet and work together (imaginable thanks to science fiction) is if earth were attacked by aliens from another planet and we faced destruction unless we were able to fend them off.
I would never have shared that, but then I heard one day that Ronald Reagan one time said the same thing! (or something similar, though more eloquently, to be sure)
Anyway, that thought came back to me while reading this story, and I found this conversation between the astronauts and the pope very touching.
The Pope asked the astronauts about the environmental health of the planet, as viewed from space.
“On the one hand, we can see how indescribably beautiful the planet that we have been given is, but on the other hand we can really clearly see how fragile it is,” said NASA astronaut Ron Garan, a member of the live-aboard station crew.
“For instance, the atmosphere, when viewed from space, is paper-thin. And to think that this paper-thin layer is all that separates every living thing from the vacuum of space and is all that protects us is really a sobering thought,” Garan said.
What the astronauts find hopeful, Garan added, is the space station itself, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that took more than a decade to build 220 miles above the planet.
“That just shows that by working together and cooperating, we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet,” he said.
Now, how to apply that here…