“Humanity is experiencing a period of extremely rapid progress in the fields of scientific knowledge and technical applications,” the pope said according to a transcript of the event provided by Vatican Radio.
“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 and commitment with which you prepared yourselves for this mission,” he said.
The pope also asked the crew several questions. Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Pope Benedict asked the astronauts if they ever wonder, as they fly over nations and continents, how science can contribute to the cause of peace in a world racked by violence. He noted that shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly’s wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was the victim of violence herself, and the pope expressed his hope that her health would continue to improve.
Kelly, a Catholic, responded:
“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 is a lot of violence in this world and it’s really an unfortunate thing. Usually, people fight over many different things. As we’ve seen in the Middle East right now: it’s somewhat for democracy in certain areas, but usually people fight for resources. And it’s interesting in space … on earth, people often fight for energy; in space we use solar power and we have fuel cells on the space station. You know, 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.”
Pope Benedict, citing environmental threats facing the planet, asked the astronauts what issues people needed to be more attentive to.
Space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. said: “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. …”
Garan said he was filled with hope to think that the international partnership that led to the construction of the space station could be applied to other issues. “That just shows that by working together and by cooperating we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet,” he said.
Pope Benedict asked the astronauts about the most important message they would like to convey, especially to young people, when they return to Earth.
Shuttle crewman Mike Fincke 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. And 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, the young people 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.”
The pope then went on to ask the astronauts whether, in the midst of their work and scientific research in space, they ever have time to stop and reflect on the origins and destiny of the universe and humankind.
Shuttle astronaut Roberto Vittori, who brought along a coin given to him by the pope that shows the “Creation of Man” painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, said that while work in space is intense, “we all have an opportunity, when the nights come, to look down on Earth: Our planet, the blue planet, is beautiful.”
Vittori added: “I do pray for me, for our families, for our future. I took with me the coin and I allow this coin to float in front of me to demonstrate lack of gravity. … I’d like to allow this coin to float to my friend and colleague [space station astronaut Paolo Nespoli]. He will make the return to Earth on the [Russian Soyuz capsule]. I brought it with me to space and he will take it down to Earth to then give it back to you.”
The pope then spoke in Italian with Nespoli, whose 78-year-old mother died in Italy at the beginning of May while he was serving on the space station. The pope said he prayed for the astronaut’s mother and asked how he was coping.
“Holy Father, I felt your prayers and everyone’s prayers arriving up here where outside the world … we have a vantage point to look at the Earth and we feel everything around us,” Nespoli replied in Italian, according to the Huffingtonpost.com.
Pope Benedict concluded the conversation by saying he would continue to pray for the astronauts and imparting his apostolic blessing.