Talk with Astronauts on the International Space Station in Orbit

Author: Pope Benedict XVI

Talk with Astronauts on the International Space Station in Orbit

Pope Benedict XVI

You are our respresentatives

"Welcome aboard, Your Holiness": the crew of the International Space Station greeted the Benedict XVI on Saturday, 21 May [2011], during his first call ever to space. The Pope spoke for 20 minutes with the astronauts via satellite from the Vatican's Foconi Hall in the Apostolic Palace. After expressing his gratitude for this "extraordinary opportunity" and remarking on the importance of their work in "humanity's exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future", the Holy Father asked them several questions in English and one in Italian. The following is the text of the Holy Father's words and the crew's responses.

Dear astronauts,

I am very happy to have this extraordinary opportunity to converse with you during your mission. I am especially grateful to be able to speak to so many of you, as both crews are present on the Space Station at this time.

Humanity is experiencing a period of extremely rapid progress in the fields of scientific knowledge and technical applications. In a sense, you are our representatives — spear-heading 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 and commitment with which you prepared yourselves for this mission. We are convinced you are inspired by noble ideals and that you intend placing the results of your research and endeavours at the disposal of all humanity and for the common good.

This conversation gives me the chance to express my own admiration and appreciation to you and to all those who collaborate in making your mission possible, and to add my heartfelt encouragement to bring it to a safe and successful conclusion.

But this is a conversation, so I must not be the only one doing the talking. I am very curious to hear you tell me about your experiences and your reflections. If you don't mind, I would like to, ask you a few questions...

From the Space Station 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 absurdit is that we fight and kill each other. I know that 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, or about how science can contribute to the cause of peace?

"Well, thank you for the kind words, Your Holiness and thank you for mentioning my wife Gabby", responded Space Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly, NASA. "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 is 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. And it's interesting ... on Earth, people often fight for energy; in space we use solar power and we have fuel cells 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 an unlimited amount of energy. And if those technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence".

One of the themes I often return to in my discourses concerns the responsibility we all have towards the future of our planet. I recall the serious risks facing the environment and the survival of future generations. Scientists tell us we have to be careful and from an ethical point of view we must develop our consciences as well. From your extraordinary observation point, how do you see the situation on Earth? Do you see signs or phenomena to which we need to be more attentive?

Ron Garan, Jr., NASA Astronaut answered: "Well, Your Holiness, it's a great honour 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 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. You know, it seems to us that it's just incredible to view the Earth hanging in the blackness of space and to think that we are all on this together, riding in this beautiful fragile oasis through the universe, it really fills us with a lot of hope to think that all of us on board this incredible orbiting Space Station that was built by the many nations of our international partnership, to accomplish this tremendous feat in orbit, I think, that just shows that by working together and by cooperating we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet, we could 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".

The experience you are having right now is both extraordinary and very important — even if you must eventually come back down to Earth like all the rest of us. When you do return, you will be much admired and treated like heroes who speak and act with
authority. You will be asked to talk about your experiences. What will be the most important messages you would like to convey — to young people especially — who will live in a world strongly influenced by your experiences and discoveries?

To this, Mike Fincke, NASA, took the microphone and responded: "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 our message, I think — one of our many messages, but I think one of our most important messages — is to let the children of the planet know that there is a whole universe for us to go explore. And when we do it together, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish".

Space exploration is a fascinating scientific adventure. I know that you have been installing new equipment to further scientific research and the study of radiation coming from outer space. 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. Believers often look up at the limitless heavens and, meditating on the Creator of it all, they are struck by the mystery of His greatness. That is why the medal I gave Robert (Vittori) as a sign of my own participation in your mission, represents the Creation of Man — as painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. In the midst of your intense work and research, do you ever stop and reflect like this — 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 Astronaut Roberto Vittori, ESA, answered in English: "Your Holiness, to live on board the International Space Station, to work as an astronaut on the shuttle Soyuz of the Station, is extremely intense. But we all have an opportunity, when night comes, to look down on Earth: our planet, the blue planet, is beautiful. Blue is the colour of-our planet, blue is the colour of the sky, blue is also the colour of the Italian Air Force, the organization that gave me the opportunity to then join the Italian Space Agency and the European Space Agency. When wehave a moment to look down, beauty which is the three-dimensional effect of the beauty of the planet is capturing our heart, is capturing our heart, my heart. And I do pray: I do pray for myself, for our families, for our future". Then he took out the coin which the Holy Father had given him allowing it to float in front of the camera to demonstrate the lack of gravity. Then, he passed it to his colleague Paolo Nespoli, ESA, also from Italy, and said: "he will return to Earth on the Soyuz. I brought it with me to space and he will take it down to Earth to then give it back to you".

[in Italian]: My last question is for Paolo: Dear Paolo, I know that your Mother passed away recently and that when you get back home in a few days she will not be there to greet you. We are all close to you in your loss, and I personally have prayed for her... How did you cope with this sorrowful time? Do you feel alone and cut off in your Space Station? Do you suffer a sense of separation, or do you feel united among yourselves and part of a community that follows your endeavours with attention and affection?

"Holy Father," started Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli in Italian, " I have felt your prayers, every one's prayers, reaching out here: it's true, we are outside the world, we are orbiting around the Earth and we have a vantage point for watching the Earth and experiencing everything around us. My colleagues here on board the Station — Dimitri, Cady, Ron, Alexander and Andrei — have been close to me in this important moment, very intense. So too my brothers, my sisters, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and my relatives were close to my mother in her last moments. I am grateful for all of this. I felt far away but also very near, and certainly the thought of feeling all of you near to me, united in this moment, has been a great solace. I also want to thank the European and American Space Agencies who made it possible for me to speak with her in her last moments".

Dear astronauts,

I thank you warmly for this wonderful opportunity to meet and dialogue with you. You have helped me and many other people to reflect together on important issues that regard the future of humanity. I wish you the very best for your work and for the success of your great mission at the service of science, international collaboration, authentic progress, and for peace in the world. I will continue to follow you in my thoughts and prayers and I willingly impart my Apostolic Blessing.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 May 2011, page 6

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