Pope blesses astronauts in 1st papal call to space

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI had a direct line to the heavens Saturday, with NASA’s help. Speaking from the Vatican, the pontiff bestowed a historic blessing upon the 12 astronauts circling Earth during the first-ever papal call to space, wishing a swift recovery for the shuttle commander’s wounded congresswoman wife and condolences for a station astronaut mourning his mother’s death.

The “extraordinary” conversation, as Benedict described it, occurred after the Endeavour astronauts inspected a small gash in the shuttle’s belly, to ensure their safe return to Earth after departing the International Space Station in just over a week. It is the next-to-last flight in NASA’s 30-year shuttle program.

Seated at a table before a television set tuned to NASA’s live broadcast from orbit, Benedict told the space travelers that “you are our representatives spearheading humanity’s exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future.” He said he admired their courage, discipline and commitment.

“It must be obvious to you how we all live together on one Earth and how absurd it is that we fight and kill each one,” the pontiff said, reading from prepared remarks. “I know that Mark Kelly’s wife was a victim of a serious attack, and I hope her health continues to improve.”

Kelly, who’s of Irish-Catholic descent, thanked the pope for his kind words. His wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had surgery to repair her skull Wednesday, four months after being shot in the head at a political event in Tucson, Ariz. She was nearly killed, yet managed to attend her husband’s launch last Monday.

Kelly told the pope that borders cannot be seen from space and noted that down on Earth, people usually fight for resources. At the space station, solar power provides unlimited energy, “and if those technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence,” he said.

Benedict asked about the future of the planet and the environmental risks it faces, and wanted to know what the astronauts’ most important message would be for young people when they return home.

Space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. spoke of the paper-thin layer of atmosphere “that separates every living thing from the vacuum of space.” And shuttle crewman Mike Fincke described how he and his colleagues “can look down and see our beautiful planet Earth that God has made.”

“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 explore,” Fincke said. “The International Space Station is just one symbol, one example, of what human beings can do when we work together constructively.”

Near the end of the 18-minute conversation, Benedict expressed concern for astronaut Paolo Nespoli, whose 78-year-old mother died in northern Italy at the beginning of May while he was serving on the space station.

“How have you been living through this time of pain on the International Space Station?” the pope asked.

“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.

Nespoli will end his five-month space station mission Monday, returning to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

He will bring back with him a silver medal that shuttle astronaut Roberto Vittori took up with him on Endeavour, that was provided by the pope. It depicts Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man,” the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

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.

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