Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2008 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA. We share it today as we discuss the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
Oct. 1, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — better known as NASA — began operations. Several Catholics who came to work at the new administration saw their work in space exploration as part of their life’s vocation to go to heaven.
In recent years, space shuttle astronauts Thomas Jones, Kevin Chilton, Sid Gutierrez and Bob Cabana have carried on the tradition.
Jones is one of few who have spoken openly about his faith. He authored the 2006 book, Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.
As one of six crew members aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, Jones spent spare time reading the Bible, praying his Rosary, and even received the Eucharist while in space.
In a 2004 article, Jones recounted receiving the Eucharist on the shuttle’s flight deck.
“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,” wrote Jones. “Our silent reflection was interrupted by a sudden burst of dazzling white light. The sun had risen just as we finished Communion, and now its pure radiance streamed through Endeavour’s cockpit windows and bathed us in its warmth … I rolled away from my crewmates, unable to stem the tears evoked by that singular sunrise.”
The Catholic character of astronauts has persevered, despite the fact that NASA does not provide a Catholic chaplain.
“They call on people like us,” said Msgr. Thomas Bevan, pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cumberland, Md.
Msgr. Bevan served as Jones’ childhood pastor and remains a friend. When Jones was preparing for his first space flight, he invited Msgr. Bevan down to the launch. There, on the beach near the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Msgr. Bevan led a prayer service for the astronauts and their families.
He said that the service seemed to bring a great deal of comfort to Jones and his wife.
“Tom’s wife was scared to death. She got sick to her stomach. That’s what the spouses live with,” said Msgr. Bevan. “The prayer service helped to place it in context.”
“I went away from the prayer service with a lot of my worries lifted away,” agreed Jones.
Several other priests have served this “space flock.”
Between 1977 and 1996, Father Tom Butler, a Carmelite priest, served NASA employees and astronauts at St. Bernadette’s Church in Houston. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, Father Butler organized an ecumenical service with other ministers in town.
Father Butler made astronaut and parishioner Bob Cabana an extraordinary minister of holy Communion prior to his shuttle flight.
“After that, if a parishioner was going up, I would make them a Eucharistic minister,” said Father Butler.
The Early Days
From the very beginning, Catholics played key roles at NASA.
That includes individuals such as Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney, Ronald Richard, and astronauts Bill Anders and Eugene Cernan.
One of the earliest to become involved was engineer and designer Max Faget. A former submariner in the U.S. Navy, Faget joined Virginia’s Langley Research Center as a research scientist. He had already worked on the design of the X-15 supersonic aircraft. In 1958, Faget became one of the original 35 engineers who formed the Space Task Group (that later became the Johnson Space Center). He was one of the instrumental members of the team that created the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecrafts.
He even filed a patent for a space shuttle design in 1972.
“At the time, the rocket bodies had a sharper, pointier body,” said former flight director Lunney. “That became untenable because of the heat that would come at it. Faget was one of those who flipped the intuition around and came up with the idea of the blunt body. It was a breakthrough.”
Another early contributor was Ronald Richard, who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory between 1962 and 1966. During his time there, Richard worked on the Mariner series of spacecraft, designed to explore the inner solar system to obtain information about Mercury, Venus and Mars.
Richard now serves as a part-time tutor and member of the board of governors at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.
Two Catholics, Gene Kranz and Glynn Lunney, were deeply involved in saving Apollo 13, which experienced an explosion on board, preventing it from landing on the moon — Kranz for his role in directing the rescue effort, and Lunney for developing a plan to save the astronauts.
Kranz joined the NASA Space Task Group at Langley. He was assigned as a Mission Control procedures officer. He was put in charge of preparing Ed Harris to portray him in the movie Apollo 13.
Kranz spoke of the influence his Catholic education had on him and the way he did business.
“After the Apollo 1 fire, we wrote out a values statement that talked about the characteristics for professional ethics,” said Kranz, referring to the 1967 disaster that claimed the lives of three astronauts. “If you read behind the lines, you’ll see a lot of influence from the Ursulines, the Oblates and the Jesuits who taught me.”
That values statement was known as the “Foundations of Mission Control,” and it became a seminal document guiding those working in operations. It included the importance of qualities such as discipline, competence and teamwork.
For example, the description under the heading “discipline” read: “being able to follow as well as lead, knowing we must master ourselves before we can master our task.”
While they’re not sure that they could articulate it at the time, both Kranz and Lunney say that their faith guided them in the important work that they were doing.
“During countdowns, when it got close, it was always time to say an Our Father,” said Lunney. “It was always private.”
Read more at National Catholic Register.