With two Italian astronauts in orbit and the shuttle program winding down, Pope Benedict XVI took note and spoke with the shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station crews on Saturday, an unprecedented event for the Vatican.
“Dear astronauts,” the pope began, speaking in English, from a desk at the Vatican, headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church. “I’m very happy to have this extraordinary opportunity to converse with you during your mission.
“Humanity is experiencing a period of extremely rapid progress in the face of scientific knowledge and technical applications. In a sense, you are our representatives spearheading humanity’s exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future, going beyond the limitations of our everyday existence. We all admire your courage, as well as the discipline, commitment with which you’ve prepared yourselves for this mission.
“This conversation gives me the chance to express my own admiration and appreciation to you and also to collaborate in making your mission possible and to add my heartfelt encouragement to bring it to a safe and successful conclusion,” the Pope said.
A question-and-answer session followed, in English and Italian, with translation provided. The interview, televised by NASA, included live audio and video from the Vatican and the space station, though the astronauts could not see the pontiff. The visiting shuttle Endeavour crew is six days into a planned 16-day mission, the next-to-last before the shuttle program ends.
Pope Benedict: From the space situation, you have a very different view of the Earth. You fly over different continents and nations several times a day. 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. I know that (Endeavour commander) Mark Kelly’s wife was a victim of a serious attack, and I hope her health continues to improve. 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?
(Note: Kelly’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is recovering from a Jan. 8 assassination attempt that killed six and injured 12 others.)
Mark Kelly: Thank you for the kind words, Your Holiness, and thank you for mentioning my wife, Gabby. It’s a very good question. We fly over most of the world and you don’t see borders, but at the same time we realize that people fight with each other and there’s a lot of violence in this world and it’s really an unfortunate thing.
People fight over many different things. As we’re seeing in the Middle East right now, it’s somewhat for democracy in certain areas, but usually people fight for resources. On Earth, often people fight for energy. In space, we use solar power and we have fuel cells on the space shuttle, but on the space station, the science and the technology that we put into the space station to develop a solar power capability, gives us pretty much unlimited amount of energy and if those technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence.
Pope: One of the things that … unite our causes concerns the responsibility we all have to the future of our planet. I recall the serious risks facing our environment and the environment of future generations. Scientists tell us we have to be careful and from an edictal point of view, we must develop our conscience as well. From your excellent observation point, how do you see the situation on Earth, do you see signs of phenomena to which we need to be more attentive?
NASA astronaut Ron Garan: Well, Your Holiness, it’s a great honor to speak with you, and you’re right, it really is an extraordinary vantage point we have up here. 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.
Just the atmosphere, 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. It seems to us that it’s just incredible to view the Earth hanging in the blackness of space and to think that we’re all on this together, riding through this beautiful fragile oasis through the universe.
It really fills us with a lot of hope to think that all of us onboard this incredible orbiting space station that was built by the many nations of our international partnership, to accomplish this tremendous feat in orbit, that just shows that by working together and by cooperating, we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet, we can solve many of the challenges that face the inhabitants of our planet. It really is a wonderful place to live and work and it’s a wonderful place to view our beautiful Earth.
Pope: The experience you have having right now is both extraordinary and very important, even if you must come back down to Earth like all the rest of us. When you do return you’ll be much admired and treated like heroes who speak and act with authority. You’ll be asked to talk about your experiences. What will be the most important messages you would like to convey, to young people especially, who live in a world strongly influenced by your experiences and discoveries?
Astronaut Mike Fincke: Your Holiness, as my colleagues have indicated, we can look down and see our beautiful planet Earth that God has made and it is the most beautiful planet in the whole solar system. However, if we look up, we can see the rest of the universe. And the rest of the universe is out there for us to go explore. The International Space Station is just one symbol, one example, of what human beings can do when we work together constructively. So one of our most important messages is to let the children of the planet know that there’s a whole universe for us to go explore and when we do it together, there’s nothing that we cannot accomplish.
Pope: Space exploration is a fascinating scientific adventure … but I think it is also an adventure of the human spirit, a powerful stimulus to reflect on the origins and on the destiny of the universe and humanity. Millions have looked up at the limitless heavens and meditating on the creator of it all, they are struck by the mystery of his greatness. In the midst of your intense work and research, do you ever stop and reflect, perhaps even to say a prayer to the creator, or will it be easier for you to think about these things once you have returned to Earth?
Italian space agency astronaut Roberto Vittori: Your Holiness, to live aboard the International Space Station, to work as an astronaut on the shuttle, Soyuz or the space station 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. Blue is the color of our planet. Blue is the color of the sky. Blue is also the color of the Italian Air Force organization that gave me the opportunity to then join the Italian Space Agency, the European Space Agency.
When we have a moment to look down, beauty is a three-dimensional effect. The beauty of the planet is capturing our art, is capturing my art, and I do pray, I do pray for me, for our families, for our future.
(Note: Vittori sent a coin given to him by the pope spinning in microgravity. He will return the coin, which the pope said symbolized his involvement and support of the mission, after Endeavour lands. He tosses the coin to his fellow Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, a space station flight engineer. Nespoli’s mother died May 2.)
Pope: (translated from Italian) Dear Paolo, I know that a few days ago, your mom has left you and in a few days you will come back home, you will not find her waiting for you. We are all close to you. Me too, I have prayed for her. 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?
Paolo Nespoli: (translated from Italian) I felt your prayers and everyone’s prayers arriving up here. We’re outside the world, we orbit outside the Earth and we have a vantage point to look at the Earth and we feel everything around us. My colleagues aboard the space station … were very close to me at this important time, for me a very intense moment, as well as my brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, my relatives were close to my mom in her last moments. I’m very grateful for this, I felt very far, but also very close and the thought of feeling all of you near me at this time has been a great relief.
I also want to thank Italian and American space agencies that have given me the opportunity so that I was able to speak with her at her last moments.
Pope: The astronauts, I thank you warmly for this wonderful opportunity to meet and dialogue with you. it helped me and many other people to reflect together on issues that regard the future of humanity. I wish you the very best for your work and for the success of your great mission in the service of science, international collaboration, progress, and for peace in the world. I will continue to follow you in my thoughts and prayers and impart my blessing.