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Vittori floated the commemorative coin in front of him, then gently tossed it to Nespoli, positioned on the opposite end of the front row of astronauts.

“I brought it with me to space, and he will take down on Earth to then give back to you,” Vittori told the pontiff. The astronaut said he prays in space “for me, for our families, for our future.”

The long-distance papal audience was arranged by the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA provided technical support from Mission Control in Houston.

Inside the ancient frescoed halls of the Vatican _ where e-mail wasn’t even in wide use until a few years ago _ the call was received with visible awe.

The 84-year-old Benedict chuckled when one of the astronauts began floating up at the end of the transmission. He waved to the U.S., Italian and Russian crew at the beginning and end of the call.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the call was evidence of the pope’s desire to communicate with people however possible, be it sending a text message with a prayer of the day or a YouTube channel playing church teachings.

Pope Paul VI sent a greeting to the moon with Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, but it was in a silicon disk that contained goodwill messages from numerous countries and was left on the Sea of Tranquility. “I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers, at the moon and stars you set in place,” said Paul VI, quoting from Psalms 8.

Mission Control, meanwhile, was glowing. Flight controllers watched on monitors as the pope got set up for the interview.

“It was just an amazing event, really a beautiful event,” said lead flight director Derek Hassmann.

Before gathering for the extra-special VIP call, the astronauts conducted an hour-long survey of the gouge in Endeavour’s belly, using a 100-foot extension boom.

Mission managers ordered the inspection as a precaution, saying there was no reason to be alarmed by the damage generated by Monday’s liftoff on Endeavour’s final voyage. Experts on the ground immediately analyzed the 3-D images beamed down, and concluded the shuttle is safe for re-entry.

The extra safety checks were put in place following the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The gouge _ spanning two or three tiles _ measures just 3 inches by 2.4 inches, and is less than an inch deep.

Similar damage was seen on a flight by Endeavour in 2007, and that, too, required no repair. By coincidence, that mission was commanded by Kelly’s identical twin brother, Scott.

Still ahead for Kelly and his crew are three more spacewalks, the next one on Sunday. Landing is scheduled for June 1.

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