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“Welcome aboard, Your Holiness!”

· A memory in the hearts of astronauts and scientists ·

Now that the space mission of our two Italian astronauts, Paolo Nespoli and Roberto Vittori, has successfully concluded and the scientific data they collected in orbit has begun to be analyzed, it is worth remembering and attempting to interpret that unique event of Saturday, 21 May, which temporarily interrupted the busy activity of the 12 inhabitants of the International Space Station to let them speak to Benedict XVI. From a purely technical viewpoint the mission was already an exceptional one from many aspects: it coincided with the last voyage of the “Endeavour”. It had two Italian astronauts aboard and was transporting a scientific instrument, the ams, built with an important Italian contribution, for research and for the study of anti-matter — to this long list of “firsts”, the satellite link between the Space Station and the Vatican's Foconi Hall added something truly special which lives on in the memories and hearts of all.

At the beginning of the transmission, the rigid protocol of spatial communication was charmingly broken by Commander Mark Kelly’s, “Welcome aboard, Your Holiness!”, and by the Pope’s calm and cordial style. After the presentations and a brief introduction, the Pontiff literally began to ply the astronauts with questions that demonstrated not only his genuine interest and admiration for the scientific activity of such a unique environment, but made especially apparent the Holy Father’s attention to the human experience of the astronauts: what they felt, what they saw, what messages they would want to communicate, in particular to young people, upon re-entering Earth, welcomed as heroes. They were profound questions, demanding and perhaps unexpected by the spacemen, but formulated with great sensitivity and respect, such as when the Pope asked if they sometimes felt the need for recollection in prayer. It seems 1,000 years away from the moment when the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was pointedly asked whether he had seen God from the porthole of his capsule, in the certainty that the response would be negative — evidently politically prearranged!

Yet, reflecting attentively on the words which Benedict XVI addressed to the astronauts, not only as individuals but — as he himself explicitly said — as representatives of modern scientific and technological civilization, the implicit question was the same: you, who can embrace the entire Earth in just one glance and appreciate its overwhelming and delicate beauty and at the same time know that it is tortured by violence and death, hunger and thirst and natural disasters, can you tell me where God is? Where is God when the “vessels” crowded with migrants on the ocean (very visible from the satellite images), sink into the stormy sea: when tsunamis and hurricanes (these, too, technologically tracked from space) wipe out thousands of human lives in just a few minutes? The question, in its stark brutality, was implicit and could not have an immediate and direct answer, but now carefully rereading the questions and their sequence, one becomes aware of how the Pope, with great maeutic wisdom, raised that hidden question for the astronauts.

The answer, which the astronauts and all of us discover after this reflection, is that God is visible from above, in those very moments: when the sea-tossed migrant asks for help, when the innocent are persecuted, when children suffer and die of starvation, when the forces of nature devastate the Earth. God cannot intervene directly with ceaseless miracles, altering the laws of Creation, because he would deprive us of our greatest gift, freedom. He shows himself, however, in that global cry for help, “so evident to you”, said pointedly Benedict XVI, “who observe the Earth from space”.

To answer that cry, to become aware that being a “creature” of one Father is a founding guarantee of equality among all peoples and to place all of our resources, including scientific and technological ones, at the service and disinterested assistance of the other. Basically this means discovering that God is not “up there in Heaven”, waiting to reward the good and punish the bad, but that he is much closer to us here and now. We urgently hope that we, created by him, may ourselves become “creators” and, as far as possible, alter through love the blind course of nature and the wrong use of human free will, helping our brethren and protecting creation.

The conversation proceeded, becoming friendly and absorbing, with particularly moving aspects, until the Pope, calling him by name, affectionately addressed Nespoli who lost his mother while in orbit far from Earth. The dialogue ended happily, with various playful gestures that made the Pontiff smile: an astronaut tried to “ascend to the sky” (but he was soon pulled back down by his comrades!), the only woman allowed her intensely curly hair be turned into a sort of lion's mane by the loss of gravity, and Vittori gave his colleague Nespoli the medal entrusted to him by the Pope, letting it float in space. Not by chance the medal was engraved with Michelangelo’s Creation and on his return to Earth it will remind us of the extraordinary catechesis which Benedict XVI entrusted to the world of science and technology, symbolically represented by the International Space Station.

The Italian Space Agency, whose institutional tasks include the dissemination of space culture which is usually limited to topics of science and technology, has the enduring pleasure of having helped to orchestrate a unique event that has broadened horizons and offered a new dimension — perhaps the most important — to enterprises in space.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 22, 2020