For Catholic astronauts, flying to space doesn't mean giving up the faith

IMAGE: CNS/ photo/courtesy NASA

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — On the International Space Station there’s a place, while filled with
robotic equipment, where astronauts like to hang out. Called the Cupola, the small module has
seven large bay windows that give crew members a panoramic view of Earth.

On his
first — and thus far only — mission into space in September 2013, astronaut
Mike Hopkins, was eager to find the Cupola. What he saw he found amazing.

you see the Earth from that vantage point and see all the natural beauty that
exists, it’s hard not to sit there and realize there has to be a higher power
that has made this,” said Hopkins, who is Catholic.

It was
in the Cupola that Hopkins found himself praying and at times taking Communion.

Under a
special arrangement with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and with the help
of Father James H. Kuczynski,
pastor of Mary Queen Catholic Church in Friendswood, Texas, Hopkins’
parish, the rookie astronaut carried a pyx with six consecrated hosts broken
into four pieces. It was enough so that he could take Communion once a week for
the 24 weeks he was aboard the ISS.

was extremely, extremely important to me,” said Hopkins, now 47, who grew
up on a farm outside of Richland, Missouri, in a United Methodist family but completed
Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes and became Catholic just before
going into space.

He said
he wanted to become Catholic not just because his wife and two teenage sons
were Catholic but because “I felt something was missing in my life.”

completed two spacewalks to change out a pump module with fellow spacefarer Rick Mastracchio. Before exiting
the ISS, he took Communion as well.

events can be stressful events,” he told Catholic News Service from his
office in Houston. “Knowing Jesus was with me when I stepped out the door
into the vacuum of space was important to me.”

Such practices
of faith, especially among Catholics in the astronaut corps, is hardly unusual.
In 1994, astronauts Sid Gutierrez,
Thomas Jones and Kevin Chilton, an
extraordinary minister of holy Communion, celebrated a Communion service on the
shuttle flight deck 125 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

long before the trio carried out their service, Frank Borman, aboard Apollo 8 orbiting the moon on
Christmas Eve in 1968, read from the Book of Genesis in perhaps one of the most
memorable broadcasts in U.S. space history. Seven months later, Buzz Aldrin, an elder in his Presbyterian
church in Houston, celebrated a communion service for himself after landing on
the moon using a kit provided by his church.

Devout Muslim
astronauts follow National
Fatwa Council guidelines developed in 2007 that define permissible
modifications to traditional rituals such as kneeling during prayer, facing
Mecca when praying, and washing. Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died during re-entry aboard the shuttle
Columbia in 2003 when it broke up over Texas and Louisiana16 minutes prior to landing,
carried a microfiche Bible given to him by Israel’s president and had copied
the traditional Jewish blessing Shabbat Kiddush into his diary so he could recite it, according to
media reports.

long-term missions to the ISS, schedules give astronauts blocks of private time
daily, allowing them to pray, read the Bible or other inspirational works, write
in a journal or reflect on God. Hopkins used some of his time to keep up with
the Sunday readings and his pastor’s weekly homily, both of which he received
via email from the support person for his family assigned by NASA who was a
member of his parish and take Communion.

crewmates knew I had the Eucharist with me,” Hopkins said. “In fact,
I coordinated with my Russian commander. He knew everything going on. They were
all aware of that, but I never tried to make a large deal about it and
publicize it and they didn’t either. They respected my faith and my desire to
follow that faith even when I was in orbit.”

Mike Good, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in
Nassau Bay, Texas, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and a veteran of two space flights, spent
about 12 days on each of his missions aboard the space shuttle. Taking
Communion into space, he said, was not as imperative.

if I was going to do a six-month expedition on the ISS, I would talk to my
priest and figure out what we were going to do,” Good said.

another perspective, Good, 53, and retired astronaut Mike Massimino, 54, told CNS that the
opportunity to fly in space offered time to reflect on creation as they gazed
upon the spaceship called Earth.

thought I had is that God must love us to give us such a beautiful home,”
Massimino said. “It’s given me a view of the planet of how special it is
and how loved we are to have such a great place and how we should appreciate it.”

Massimino’s spacewalk partner on a 2009 shuttle mission servicing the Hubble
Space Telescope, said he felt blessed to see the planet from high above.

back at the Earth, I can’t really describe how beautiful it is from 300 miles
up,” Good said. “Looking down, you can tell it’s a planet. The sky is
black. There’s just a thin blue ribbon, what we see as blue sky on Earth. You
realize how small it is and how fragile the planet is.

just makes it so obvious that God created this beautiful place. The word awe
just comes to mind. … And looking out into space, it’s just a clear view. The
stars don’t twinkle. It’s like a high definition 3-D TV. You look out into space and feel very

men acknowledged that flying into space is dangerous and they prepared before
their missions by participating in the sacrament of reconciliation. “You
try to be in as good a state as you can because it’s a dangerous event you’re
going to partake in,” said Massimino, who also flew on a shuttle mission
to Hubble in 2002.

Good, a
graduate of the University of Notre Dame, expects that when the moment of
launch comes, there’s a feeling of connection with God or a higher power among
just about everyone heading to space.

out to the launchpad is like being in a foxhole,” Good said. “There’s
not a lot of atheists in a foxhole. I don’t think there’s many atheists sitting
atop the launchpad.”

and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, allow astronauts to take a little more
than 3 pounds of personal items into space. Some of the Catholics who have
flown have taken crucifixes, prayer cards, icons and other religious objects
with them.

the things Massimino took on his first flight was a Vatican City flag, which he
later gave to St. John Paul II. On his second flight, he took a prayer card
depicting Pope Benedict XVI, which he gave to the pontiff.

Good and Massimino took mementos, including religious items, from their
schools, parishes and friends into space.

Catholic astronaut, Mark Vande
Hei, 49, is preparing for his first mission to the ISS next March. He said
he has talked a bit with his Catholic colleagues about what to expect. The next
11 months will be particularly busy as he trains in Japan, around the U.S. and at
the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome
in Kazakhstan. For now, his spiritual preparation remains the same with
daily prayer and regular Mass attendance at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Nassau Bay.

pray the rosary while walking the dog,” he added.

To keep
astronauts’ spirits high, NASA arranges for occasional calls with celebrities on
flights and asks each astronaut with whom they might like to talk. Vande Hei,
who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from St. John’s University in
Minnesota, said he suggested Pope Francis.

request may not be outside the realm of possibility. Pope Benedict communicated
with the crew aboard the ISS in May 2011 in a 20-minute conversation.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski


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