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Reaching the Heavens: An Astronaut's Spiritual Journey
By Thomas D. Jones
This astronaut describes how his journeys into space brought him closer to God.

Q U I C K S C A N

From Pilot to Astronaut
Spiritual Preparations
Some Final R&R
Ready to Go
Countdown to Liftoff
First Views in Space
Getting Down to Work
Comradeship and Communion With Christ
Glimpsing God's Universe
The True Beauty of Space Exploration
Washington, D.C.'s National Cathedral's 'Space Window'

Thomas Jones outside the International Space Station

Photo from NASA

Jones waves from outside the International Space Station during his last flight into space in February 2001.

Spaceflight is hard work. My 53 days off the planet, orbiting Earth on the space shuttle and International Space Station, have been the most demanding of my life. In space, critical mission events like space walks, rocket firings and dockings at the Space Station rush past like a stream blasted from a fire hose. I seldom found a moment to even think of relaxing. Yet in the tumult and excitement of exploring space, an astronaut can still find quiet new insights into faith.

A space voyage challenges us, as humans, to examine our faith in a new light, outside our comfortable routine. We are familiar with silent prayer, community worship at church and at Mass, inspiration from the people we encounter and meditation on God’s word in the Bible.

But on my four space shuttle flights, I found myself in an environment un-like any of my prior experiences with God. I struggled constantly to make sense of an avalanche of new sensations and perceptions. How did this amazing experience relate to my existing Catholic faith? Did venturing into the heavens change my relationship with God?

Astronauts, as ordinary human beings, carry their preconceptions and religious upbringing with them into space. Many Americans still remember Christmas Eve of 1968, when the crew of Apollo 8 inspired millions back on Earth with their lunar orbit readings from the Book of Genesis. I knew spaceflight could be a spiritual experience, and I thought I was prepared for that aspect of my first voyage off the planet.

I was 39 years old in April 1994, the only rookie astronaut on shuttle Endeavour’s crew of six. Our 11-day mission would carry aloft the Space Radar Laboratory, a cutting-edge science instrument that would use radar echoes to map natural and man-made changes on Earth’s continents and oceans.

An Air Force bomber pilot during the Cold War, I’d gone on to study the solar system while earning a doctorate in planetary sciences from the University of Arizona. Now, as a mission specialist astronaut, I’d put that scientific knowledge to use during our round-the-clock observations from 120 miles up.

Just before Easter, as I crammed in a last few hours of studying for the mission, my family prepared to head for Cape Canaveral to watch their husband and father ride a flaming torch into space.

In the whirl of those last days of training before launch, I also made it a point to ready myself spiritually for departure from Earth. Before the drive to crew quarters and the weeklong medical quarantine in Houston, I’d met my pastor for the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it was Holy Thursday.

Now with my crew isolated from the random germs carried by our children and co-workers in those last days before launch, Easter Sunday arrived. Father John Kappe, of St. Clare’s Parish near Johnson Space Center, was kind enough to submit to a once-over from the flight surgeon so he could celebrate Easter Mass with our crew.

That afternoon we gathered around a conference room table under banks of powerful fluorescent lights, meant to shift our body clocks onto the proper wake-sleep cycle for orbit. The white altar cloth and Father Kappe’s dazzling vestments had us squinting as if we were outdoors on a sunny day. He prayed with us for a safe and successful mission, reminding us that we were about to see our world as few humans have. The room’s brilliant light seemed both a reminder of the Resurrection and a hint of the extraordinary scenes awaiting us in orbit.

My prayers were for success, of course, but I also asked God to protect and support my family during the upcoming stress of the launch and our 11-day absence.

The next day, our STS-59 (STS stands for Space Transportation System, NASA’s official name for the space shuttle) crew flew to Cape Canaveral to complete a flurry of last-minute launch briefings and preparations. But on Tuesday morning we took a break, driving to the beach just three miles from the launchpad and the waiting shuttle Endeavour.

The sunrise gathering at the small NASA beach house was a last chance to relax and share a meal with a few special guests: spouses, parents, siblings and the closest of friends. My mother, Rosemarie, was there, along with my longtime friend and best man, Tom Grzymski.

Missing was my father. David Jones, who’d always encouraged my dream of flying in space one day, had died suddenly just 18 months earlier. I felt his absence keenly. He was as happy as I was when I was first assigned to the mission. That he should miss this moment, now just 72 hours away, made me miss Dad even more. I hoped he’d be close by when the countdown reached zero.

Blessed with a soft ocean breeze and some great Texas barbecue, our families kept the mood light. We naturally avoided discussing questions of danger and instead shared small talk and caught up on family news. We were letting go of the things of Earth. Earlier in the week, each astronaut had met briefly with a colleague chosen as our “casualty assistance officer.” We reviewed financial records, burial wishes, key family members, the location of everything from car keys to wills and so on.

Now, on the sand outside the beach house, our commander, Sid Gutierrez, invited us to pray together. Astronauts, their friends and families gathered in a circle, the surf lapping near our feet. Father (now Monsignor) Tom Bevan, who in Baltimore 30 years before had trained me as an altar boy, led us in reflection. The morning sun warmed our faces as he reminded us how God had formed—out of nothingness—the universe, our planet, its oceans and continents.

Here on the beach we could see God’s creative power. In three days we’d leave Earth from the launchpad visible just over the dunes and get a new perspective on God’s handiwork. Father Tom noted that, far from just observing God’s Earth, all of us were active participants in the ongoing process of creation.

Our extended families stood beside us. Seabirds skimmed the nearby surf just yards away, and beneath those waves, a surging ocean teemed with life. All were evidence of the ongoing vigor of birth, of life, of creation. Our rocket-borne voyage was the leading edge of humanity’s—of life’s—expansion into the cosmos. We were not only explorers but also agents of God’s creative force.

Leaving the beach, we carried an afterglow of God’s peace with us that carried us through the difficult parting with family. Worries dropped away; I was calm and relaxed those last few days at crew quarters. Space beckoned.

High winds forced an extra day’s wait, but on Saturday morning we crawled through Endeavour’s hatch for the start of our mission from planet Earth. In the final moments of the countdown, my colleague Linda Godwin, lying strapped in her seat just a few feet to my left, gave me a reassuring thumbs-up: She remembered I was the only rookie on the flight.

I snapped my helmet visor shut and spent a few of my remaining moments on Earth in prayer. I prayed for the safety of my crew. I asked God to be with my family, now watching and waiting three miles away on the roof of the Launch Control Center. I asked that God stay with me, to guide me in my work on this mission. And I prayed that I would make the most of the talents God had given me in meeting the challenges ahead.

I took much comfort in the knowledge that five miles away, lining the causeway over the Banana River, thousands of friends, family members and well-wishers were also praying for us, for me. As I had done through years of Air Force flying, I placed my fate in God’s hands, put my fears away and focused on the job ahead. The Creator had brought me here; now it was my turn to show that God’s faith in me was well placed.

“Thirty seconds.” The quiet voices of the launch technicians on the firing circuit belied the tension of these last few moments. With our voyage of nearly five million miles about to begin, I thought of St. Christopher: His statue wasn’t on Endeavour’s dashboard, but his medal was certainly around my neck. I was taking no chances!

At six seconds before liftoff the orbiter’s main engines rumbled to life, their rattling vibration shaking Endeavour from nose to tail. I had just enough time to register copilot Kevin Chilton’s call “Three at a hundred!” confirming our engines at full power, when the twin solid rocket boosters ignited and threw six million pounds of thrust into our fight against gravity.

Instantly, I was slammed upward against my straps as the shuttle leapt from the pad. The violent shock of liftoff settled in a few seconds into a barely controlled shudder as Endeavour arrowed into the dawn sky. We felt the ship roll onto course for orbit as the initial acceleration squeezed us firmly back into our seats.

Above the throaty roar of the main engines and boosters, I could hear the hollow shriek of the wind whipping by the cabin, a reminder of the tremendous forces buffeting our fragile spaceship. This was the flight regime where Challenger had been ripped apart eight years earlier. I hung on, aware of our vulnerability, but comforted by a sudden warmth bathing my spacesuit. It was my dad, riding the rocket with his boy. His presence was so real that I called aloud to him, grateful to have two fathers to watch over me on our climb to orbit.

Two minutes raced by, and the pressure on our bodies eased as the boosters devoured the last of their fuel. With a metallic clang of exploding bolts, the empty boosters flared away and arced behind us toward a watery landing. Running on the orbiter’s three main engines, our ride was now perfectly smooth, as if glued to a rail leading straight to orbit.

Those first two bone-shaking minutes were perhaps the most dangerous part of the ride to orbit, and we six aboard Endeavour breathed more easily under the reduced acceleration. So far, so good.

As we popped open our helmet faceplates, I caught a glance from Linda to my left. We both grinned in shared relief. I slid against my straps and squeezed her outstretched right hand. Even through our suit gloves, I felt her message of encouragement: “Keep the faith! We’ll make it!” That vital human touch seemed to me another reassuring sign that my prayers were being heard.

Through the remaining six and a half minutes of our race into the heavens, anxiety gave way to sheer exhilaration at this new experience for body and soul. Endeavour’s acceleration pinned me to my seat with three times the force of gravity, and I could only marvel at the power of this machine. Though designed and crafted by human hands, the shuttle’s muscular precision seemed to approach a higher plane.

Eight minutes and 32 seconds after liftoff, Endeavour’s engines thundered into silence. Our free-falling path around Earth made ship and crew instantly weightless, but the unfamiliar condition prompted me to perform a simple test to confirm I’d really arrived. I tugged off my left glove and set it spinning slowly in front of me. This might not be heaven, I thought, but it sure wasn’t Earth!

Kevin said it best when he floated downstairs a few minutes later and, grinning, clapped me on the shoulder: “Tom, we’re in space—and we’re still alive!”

An hour or so later, I caught my first glimpse of the world we’d left behind. Drifting close to Endeavour’s side hatch window, I peered into the darkness outside. Between heaven and Earth was a vision of pure beauty, the robin’s-egg blue of the atmosphere backlighting the darkened planet below.

That luminous rim of Earth, heralding the coming sunrise, triggered a flood of emotion in me: The 30 years I’d dreamed of flying in space, the two decades spent working toward that goal, now gave way to the realization that God had granted my wish. I fought back tears, said a silent prayer of thanks and turned reluctantly back to work.

A mission specialist’s work begins in earnest once the shuttle arrives in orbit. Linda and I were the two lead scientists aboard, in charge of the Space Radar Lab out in Endeavour’s cargo bay.

Our two pilot astronauts, Sid and Kevin, joined Linda on the Red Shift, working the 12 hours coinciding with daylight at Houston’s Mission Control Center. I joined mission specialists Rich Clifford and Jay Apt on the overnight Blue Shift, the three of us managing the radar observations and monitoring Endeavour’s many subsystems.

My crew had three primary jobs during these round-the-clock science operations: pointing the shuttle and its radar antennae, capturing the flood of digital imagery on high-speed tape recorders and snapping detailed photographs of the dozens of science sites we scanned each day. (We returned over 10,000 photographs to help scientists interpret the novel radar images.)

After years of graduate school studies focused on distant worlds, it was enormously satisfying to me to see this new radar, a descendant of one used to study the planet Venus, revealing the hidden secrets of our own world.

It was impossible in these first days of the mission not to be dazzled by the sight of our planet. Most of our work was on the flight deck, beneath the shuttle’s two wide overhead windows, pointed nearly straight down to Earth’s surface, 120 miles below.

Endeavour was rolled nearly upside down to aim its radars at Earth. What a privilege to work there (upside down, but weightless) for 12 hours each day! Pastel continents and indigo oceans slid steadily past as we circled the globe once every 90 minutes. Looking at Earth’s varied surface, nestled within a cocoon of delicate atmosphere, I couldn’t help but marvel at the infinite power behind its creation.

Just over a week into the mission, one of us realized it was Sunday again, two weeks after Easter. Our shifts overlapped for a few hours, so during one orbital night Sid, Kevin and I gathered on the flight deck for a short Communion service.

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.

I rolled away from my crewmates, unable to stem the tears evoked by that singular sunrise. My gaze turned to the overhead windows and the Pacific Ocean, the dawn lighting its surface in a rich, limitless blue.

I called out to Kevin and Sid, “Look at that ocean—what an incredible color!” They both turned and drank in hues unmatched by the palette of any human artist. After a moment, Kevin said simply, “It’s the blue of the Virgin’s veil, Tom.” He was right. There were no other words for that vision out the window.

In the course of three more shuttle flights, I again experienced the beauty of our planet and the spiritual satisfaction of receiving Holy Communion in orbit. In my mission notebook, I carried the readings for each Sunday’s liturgy, as well as Bible passages suggested by a few of my friends in the clergy. A rosary was always a part of my personal gear on board, and I found prayer came easily, whether I was floating weightless in my sleeping bag or gazing quietly at the Earth.

The idea that spaceflight is a gift from God was brought home to me again on my last flight in February 2001. We had raced through the first week of an incredibly busy flight plan: a rendezvous with the International Space Station, our delivery of Destiny, its new science lab, and three seven-hour space walks aimed at equipping and activating the lab’s power, cooling and data systems.

On the last of the trips outside the shuttle, my partner, Bob Curbeam, and I had wrapped up nearly all our work. Crewmate Mark Polansky asked if I was ready to head back down to shuttle Atlantis’s cargo bay.

“Give me a minute,” I answered. Perched near the front of the Space Station on Destiny’s hull, I wanted to remember this place, this moment.

Even after the experiences of three other spaceflights, the view from the “bow” of the Space Station was incomparable. Pivoting around my grip on Destiny’s forward handrail, I let the unfolding panorama wash over me. My spacesuit and I were weightless, my movements effortless. Silence prevailed, save for the soft whir of the suit fan at the back of my helmet.

Directly in front of me, 20 feet away, the tail of Atlantis split the distant horizon. Straight up, the glittering solar panels of the Space Station spread golden wings across the black nothingness of space. Beneath my boots, I watched the royal blue of the ocean and its swirling white clouds 240 empty miles below.

Behind me, the bulk of the Station plowed forward like a vast sailing ship, heading smoothly toward the horizon a thousand miles off.

Never have I felt so insignificant, yet so privileged to be a part of a scene so obviously set by God. Emotions welled up inside: gratitude for the chance to experience this vista, wonder that our minds can appreciate God’s glories, humility at my minuscule place in God’s limitless universe.

Riding the prow of the Space Station, I thought of how much God had done for me. If God can show such generosity to one unimportant astronaut, I thought, how limitless must be God’s gifts to those truly in need.

My five minutes were up. Soon Bob and I were clambering back inside Atlantis, but I will never forget being granted that brief glimpse of God’s universe and my humble role in it.

You might think that, to an astronaut, reaching for the heavens is all about the excitement of a blastoff or the exhilaration of a space walk. To any human, yes, spaceflight is an incomparable experience.

But for humanity as a whole, our exploration of space can bring us a deeper understanding of God’s love for us. Anticipating our efforts at discovery, God has given us a special ability to appreciate the wonders of the vast and beautiful universe, a “sweet spot” in our minds receptive to the Creator’s skill and power.

We are designed to be awed in space. If our imperfect species has found such glimmers of delight in our first tentative encounter with the cosmos, then we truly have found a most caring and generous God.

                

Inside Washington’s National Cathedral is a little bit of outer space—literally. Within the cathedral’s stained-glass “Scientists and Technicians Window”—in the upper center—is a 7.18-gram basalt lunar rock from the Sea of Tranquility donated by the crew of Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin and Michael Collins.

The window was dedicated nearly five years after Apollo 11’s lunar landing. Artist Rodney Winfield of St. Louis created the window based on photos taken during the Apollo 11 mission.

Each of the elements of the window has symbolic meaning. For in-stance, the white dots throughout the window symbolize stars. The thin white trajectory encircling a sphere depicts a manned spaceship.

According to the Cathedral’s Web site (www.cathedral.org/cathedral/discover/spacewindow.shtml), “Winfield wanted to show the minuteness of humanity in God’s universe.”—Susan Hines-Brigger

 

Thomas Jones is a scientist, speaker, author and consultant from Oakton, Virginia. In addition to spending 53 days in space on four space shuttle missions, he has written articles for Air and Space, Aerospace America, Checkpoints and Flight Journal. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to NASA. He was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, where he attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Elementary School.


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