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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.