On a Wing and a Prayer: Astronauts “Touch the Face of God”

If you’re as old as I am, you may remember the tension in our nation when the first astronauts rode a rocket into space.  In my elementary school classroom on May 5, 1961, we offered a wide-eyed prayer for Alan Shepard when he careened through space for 15 minutes in sub-orbital flight.  (Shepard himself is reputed to have uttered the first unofficial and irreverent “prayer” in space, saying “Dear Lord, please don’t let me f— up.”)

When the space shuttle Atlantis lands at 5:56 a.m. July 21, it will cap a 30-year era of space exploration; and at least for the present time, no further launches are scheduled.  Americans will celebrate the scientific expertise and creativity that brought this daunting dream to fruition.  However, not everyone will remember that for most of the brave men and women who traversed the heavens aboard the Mercury capsule or the Apollo rocket or the shuttle Discovery, space travel has been a deeply spiritual experience.  These explorer scientists have made prayer an integral part of space exploration.

CNN’s Belief Blog has recently published a chronology of prayer in space—ranging from astronaut Scott Carpenter’s quick “Godspeed, John Glenn!” in February 1962, as Glenn began the first manned Earth orbit, to Apollo 11 Colonel Buzz Aldrin’s communion service on the moon in July 1969, to Discovery pilot Colonel Eric Boe’s huddle prayer with the mission team before take-off in March 2011.

Different faith traditions have brought unique challenges:

  • In February 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon brought with him aboard the shuttle Columbia a tiny microfiche Bible, a gift from Israel’s president.  He also broadcast to Earth a reading of the traditional Jewish blessing Shabbat Kiddush.
  • Muslim cosmonaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia prayed regularly during his 2007 stay aboard the International Space Station; but since there are several “sunrises” each day during space travel, it was necessary for Islamic scholars to establish special rules regarding how to face Mecca and how many times to pray in each 24-hour period.

Papal Phone Call to Space – On May 21 of this year, Pope Benedict XVI telephoned the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour on its final flight:

During the papal call to space, Pope Benedict bestowed a historic blessing upon the 12 crew members gathered in the cabin, and offered his prayers and well wishes for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, wife of shuttle captain Mark Kelly who was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt.  Endeavour’s Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori assured the pope that during his time in space, he had prayed “for me, for our families, and for our future.”  And shuttle crewman Mike Fincke described how he and his colleagues “can look down and see our beautiful planet Earth that God has made.”

Receiving the Eucharist in Space – In June of 2004, I was captivated by an article which appeared in St. Anthony Messenger, by NASA astronaut Tom Jones.  (I wrote once about this remarkable story on my blog.  You can read it again here.)

It has been my pleasure to twice invite Dr. Jones to speak before a group of Catholics, to tell his most unique story:  how, aboard the shuttle Endeavour, he had gathered on Sunday with crew members Sid Gutierrez and Kevin Chilton for a brief communion service in the cockpit.  Tom wrote:

Kevin, a eucharistic minister, carried the Blessed Sacrament with him, contained within a simple golden pyx. The three of us shared our amazement at experiencing the beauty of creation, and thanked God for good companions and the success achieved so far. Then Kevin shared the Body of Christ with Sid and me, and we floated weightless on the flight deck, grateful for this moment of comradeship and communion with Christ.

Our silent reflection was interrupted by a sudden burst of dazzling white light.  The sun had risen (as it did 16 times each day) just as we finished Communion, and now its pure radiance streamed through Endeavour’s cockpit windows and bathed us in its warmth. To me, this was a beautiful sign, God’s gentle touch confirming our union with him.

Prayer at Time of Adversity – But perhaps the most poignant of all prayers have been those earnest prayers offered by a President on behalf of our grieving nation, on the occasion of the two space disasters.

President Ronald Reagan remembered the Challenger astronauts after the tragic lift-off explosion that took their lives.  He quoted from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., saying in part:

There’s a coincidence today.  On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama.  In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.”  Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives.  We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

President George W. Bush, similarly, turned to God and he quoted from Scripture when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on approach.  President Bush, in his address to the American people, said:

In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy.  Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens.  Who created all these?  He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.  Because of His great power, and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”

The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.  The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that they are all safely home.

May God bless the grieving families.  And may – may God continue to bless America.

On December 21, 1968, our nation was in strife.  The war in Vietnam had divided and demoralized the nation; Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated; and the Zodiac Killer was on the loose.  A nation in need of healing listened as the crew of the Apollo spacecraft read the creation story from the Book of Genesis.  Their closing greeting to Americans gathered for a bit of good news was“…And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you on the good earth.”

Please take a moment to listen to that impassioned Christmas greeting here:


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One Response to “On a Wing and a Prayer: Astronauts “Touch the Face of God””

  1. […] recited prayers, even received the Eucharist while in space.  I wrote about some of their stories here […]