Vatican’s role in space mission

I have been an avid follower of the NASA program and followed its missions since childhood. So I found this last one particularly poignant.

So did Pope Benedict.

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

The ‘S’ in NASA

It stands for space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This week, some people wonder whether it means sensitivity. Relatively few folks, actually…

Like those who are aware of President Obama’s commission to the new NASA director, and who maybe question what the space administration has to do with geopolitics.

But among major media….nada on NASA?

As for me, I intended to blog in mourning back when Obama defunded the program, because I’ve been a lifelong NASA follower, fascinated by space expeditions and eager to see it go further. When I was in grade school, I wrote in to ask politely for a photograph of an astronaut, if it were possible. What I received was breathtaking…..a large brown envelope that held a stack of 8×10 personally autographed color photos of each member of a team of astronauts, some already famous and some yet to be (but who would figure prominently in future missions). Wow.

Then when Tom Hanks did ‘Apollo 13’, the film rendering of the dramatic events astronaut Jim Lovell chronicled so well in his book Lost Moon….I was privileged to be invited to the premiere, met Lovell and got his autograph on my copy of the book, feeling very much the little girl I’d returned to in the moment.

So last February, I was crushed when news came out that Obama was drawing down the program.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is canceling NASA’s current space shuttle replacement- and lunar exploration-plan and is prepared to fight any congressional effort to save it, the nation’s top budget official said Jan. 31. 

The president’s budget, officially sent to Congress Monday morning, confirms what officials had stated during a teleconference with reporters one day before: White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer stated Obama’s plan to kill NASA’s Constellation program, a five-year-old effort to replace the aging space shuttle fleet with new rockets and spacecraft optimized to return astronauts to the Moon.

These links are from stories I saved at the time to use here, but never got to. (It pays for a journalist to be fastidious.)

Eclipsed in Monday’s news of President Obama’s proposed $3.8 trillion budget – with its $100 billion marked for jobs creation and increased taxes on the rich – is the grounding of NASA’s program to return to the moon.

The budget, if passed by Congress, would scuttle funding the Constellation program, with its goal of returning a manned mission by 2010 to the moon, the site of NASA’s greatest achievement, the Apollo missions of the late ’60s and ’70s.

“We are proposing canceling the program, not delaying it,” Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a conference call with reporters.

The White House drafted a space advisory panel to review the beleaguered Constellation program, which deemed the project unable to get out of orbit without a hefty $3 billion annual increase to its operational budget. The budget also shot down the planned Ares I rocket, the planned successor to the space shuttle, Reuters reported.

It was all over the media at the time, and I stored link after link.

American astronauts will not return to the moon as planned if Congress passes President Obama’s proposed budget…

On its Web site, the White House Budget Office says the program to send astronauts to the moon is behind schedule, over budget and overall less important than other space investments.

“Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives,” the site says.

So now we know what one of the primary alternatives was for President Obama.