Astronauts offer Pope unique view of Earth's woes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida Sat May 21, 2011 5:42pm EDT

1 of 6. European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli of Italy talks with Pope Benedict XVI as the combined space shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station crews gather for a call from the Vatican in this still image from NASA TV May 21, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/Handout

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The shuttle Endeavour and space station crews gathered on Saturday for an unprecedented conversation with Pope Benedict, who asked how the space program could promote peace and if the astronauts prayed while in orbit.

"I think 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 Pope said.

"When you are contemplating the Earth from up there, do you ever wonder about the way nations and people live together down here, about how science can contribute to the cause of peace?" he asked via a televised link from the Vatican.

The Pope added his personal wish for the recovery of Endeavour commander Mark Kelly's wife, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in an January 8 assassination attempt that killed six and injured 12 others.

"Thank you for mentioning my wife, Gabby," said Kelly. "We fly over most of the world and you don't see borders, but at the same time we realize that people fight with each other and there's a lot of violence in this world and it's really an unfortunate thing."

The shuttle commander agreed that people fight for many things, such as the ongoing struggle for democracy in the Middle East and for resources such as energy.

"The science and the technology that we put into the space station to develop a solar power capability, pretty much gives us an unlimited amount of energy and if those technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence," Kelly said.

The Pope also had a personal message for space station flight engineer Paolo Nespoli, whose mother died on May 2.

"How have you been living through this time of pain on the International Space Station? Do you feel isolated and alone, or do you feel united amongst ourselves in a community that follows you with attention and affection?" the pope asked, speaking in Nespoli's native Italian.

"Holy Father, I felt your prayers and everyone's prayers arriving up here," Nespoli replied in Italian.

UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE OF SPACE

"My colleagues aboard the space station were very close to me at this important time, for me a very intense moment," Nespoli said. "I felt very far but also very close."

Astronaut Roberto Vittori, also from the Italian Space Agency, demonstrated microgravity by flipping a coin given to him by the Pope, a symbol of the Vatican's involvement in the mission, the next-to-last for NASA's space shuttle program.

The coin will be returned to the Pope after Endeavour lands, now scheduled for June 1.

"To live aboard the International Space Station, to work as an astronaut is extremely intense, but we all have an opportunity when the nights come to look out and, more, to look down at Earth. Our planet, the blue planet, is beautiful," Vittori said.

"I do pray," he added. "I do pray for me, for our families, for our future."

The Pope asked the astronauts about the environmental health of the planet, as viewed from space.

"On the one hand, we can see how indescribably beautiful the planet that we have been given is, but on the other hand we can really clearly see how fragile it is," said NASA astronaut Ron Garan, a member of the live-aboard station crew.

"For instance, the atmosphere, when viewed from space, is paper-thin. And to think that this paper-thin layer is all that separates every living thing from the vacuum of space and is all that protects us is really a sobering thought," Garan said.

What the astronauts find hopeful, Garan added, is the space station itself, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that took more than a decade to build 220 miles above the planet.

"That just shows that by working together and cooperating, we can overcome many of the problems that face our planet," he said.

After the Pope's call, NASA engineers sounded the all-clear on a 3.3-inch long section of the shuttle's heat shield damaged by a debris impact during the May 16 launch. The tiles are part of the shield that protects the shuttle from the searing heat of atmospheric re-entry.

"We're essentially clearing the vehicle for reentry at this point," LeRoy Cain, the mission management chairman, told reporters.

The crew used the shuttle's robot arm to sweep a sensor-laden boom over the damaged ceramic tile, located on the ship's belly. Heat shield damage caused the 2003 Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts.

Endeavour arrived at the space station on Wednesday to deliver the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer particle detector and spare parts. The crew has planned four spacewalks during their 12-day stay, the second of which is scheduled for Sunday.

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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