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Dec 31, 2021 947 Dr. Thomas D Jones
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Sky Walking With Jesus

A special interview with Dr. Thomas D. Jones who went on four separate shuttle missions with NASA. On one of those missions, he was actually able to take the Eucharist with him!

Tell us about what it was like to be out in space looking out at the stars and back at the Earth. How did that impact your faith in Jesus?

To realize my professional dream of flying in space, which every astronaut hopes for, I had to wait for almost 30 years. So my first flight was the realization of a childhood dream. Gazing out at this immense view of the cosmos surrounding our home planet, gave me a chance to think about why I was there. It was such an emotional experience to truly see the incredible beauty of the universe, and our home planet in all its lovely variety— really breathtaking. I just felt so thankful to God for the chance to be there physically—overwhelmed by His grace and Presence.

You are known as one of the astronauts who was able to bring the Eucharist into space. For all of us who are believers, that is just so inspiring. Could you share that whole experience?

It was certainly amazing to all of us who participated. One can’t go anywhere as remote as space and forget about your spiritual life. It is faith that helped me succeed on Earth and this is the same faith that I was counting on to help me succeed in space. On my first flight in 1994, aboard the shuttle, Endeavour, there were two other Catholic astronauts. When we got together to prepare for the 11 day mission, we talked about how wonderful it would be to take the Eucharist with us into space. So, because Kevin Chilton, our pilot on the flight, was an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, we were able to receive permission from our pastor to bring the Blessed Sacrament with us.

Every moment of the eleven-day-flight was tightly scheduled, but our Catholic commander, Sid Gutierrez, was able to find a spot about seven days in, when we were comfortable with how the mission was going, for a ten-minute Communion service. So, on that Sunday—our second Sunday in space— we took a pause from all the business of the mission to spend ten minutes alone in the cockpit with the God who had made this all possible, and share Holy Communion with Him. Indeed, it was a recognition that we could never have reached that point without His presence among us. It was really satisfying to bring our faith-life into space and to know that He was there, physically, with us.

Have you ever found it difficult to bring Science and Faith together? Could you elaborate on the relationship between science and faith?

Throughout my professional career, I have known many scientists who are spiritual, and they have their own faith practices. Right here in northern Virginia, I have met several Catholic scientists and engineers in my own church who share a strong faith. They believe in God’s Creation, and in the biblical inspiration of how we understand the universe.

I think most people have some spiritual elements in their lives. I have known astronauts who are not formally religious, but they were all moved by the spiritual experience of space travel. So I have found that most people are open to what the universe and the natural world around us reveal in terms of how we understand Creation. Scientists are so curious, like all humans, about the nature of the universe and what we can learn about it.

To me, this is a sign that science and spirituality go hand in hand. Our curiosity and interest in nature and how it functions, how the universe is put together and how it was created—that curiosity was given to us because we’re made in the likeness of God. That’s part of His personality imparted to us. So I think that this search for the truth about the natural world is a part of our innate nature as human beings.

I believe that the quest for knowledge is something that gives God a lot of pleasure—to see the creatures that He has made seeking out the secrets of how He has put the universe together. Mind you, He’s not trying to keep it a secret. He just wants it to be unveiled through our own efforts, ingenuity and curiosity. So, to me, there’s not a lot of conflict between Science and Nature and Spirituality. I think that people trying to separate them are attempting to split human nature into a rational half and a spiritual half. Of course, that can’t be done. A person is one human being whose nature can’t be separated.

On your space missions you were accomplishing, in many ways, the epitome of human achievement. Doing something really great, and yet encountering something so much greater in magnitude—the glory and the majesty of God’s creation… What was it like to have accomplished so much, while still recognizing your own smallness compared to God?

To me it all crystallized on my last mission. I was helping build the space station, doing three space walks to install a science lab called Destiny. Near the end of my last spacewalk, I was out on the very front end of the space station. Since I was ahead of our work schedule, NASA’s Mission Control let me hang out for about five minutes out there. By holding on to the front of the space station with my fingertips, I was able to rotate around so I could see the immensity of space surrounding me.

I looked down at the Earth, 220 miles straight down past my boots to the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. I was floating there looking out to the horizon—a thousand miles away–and then the endless, black sky up above my head.

About 100 feet above me, the space station glowed like gold with sunlight reflected from its solar panels, as we silently fell around the world together. This amazing view was so incredibly beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. I was overwhelmed by this feeling, ‘Here I am, a highly trained astronaut on this space station, cruising around the Earth, yet I’m just a puny human being compared to this vast cosmos out there.’

God pulled the curtain back a little bit for me, letting me see that magnificent vastness in a personal way. I felt, “Yes, you’re very special because you’re getting to see this view”, but was reminded of how insignificant we all are in the vast universe which God has created. Feeling important and being humbled at the same time was a gift from God. It literally brought tears to my eyes as I thanked the Lord, thrilled to be sharing this view with Him. Very few humans ever have the experience and privilege of seeing Earth from that perspective, and it was all thanks to Him.

There’s a lot of confusion in the world right now…a lot of darkness and suffering; but when you look at the world either from that very unique vantage point that you had in Space, or now in your current state of life, what’s giving you hope?

I think what inspires me is that we’ve been given very curious minds by God. We’ve got this innate curiosity and that’s made us problem solvers and explorers. So, even with all the challenges we are beset by today, whether it’s a pandemic, or the threat of war, or feeding seven billion people around the world, we’ve got the skills that we’ve been given and we’re called to put them to good use in order to solve these problems. There is a vast universe out there, full of resources. It challenges us, but if we look beyond our home world into the solar system and the universe, there are a lot of things that we can make use of.

Vast material resources on the Moon and nearby asteroids can supplement those we find on Earth. There’s a colossal supply of solar energy which could be harvested from space and beamed down to the world to help supply everybody with the power and electricity that they need to succeed. We’ve got the ability to ward off rogue asteroids that have often struck Earth, and because we’ve got space skills and the minds to develop a way to defend our planet, we can prevent these most terrible of natural disasters. So, we don’t have to go the way of the dinosaurs if we use the skills that we’ve acquired and put ourselves to the task.

We live in a world that encourages us to use our curiosity and intelligence to solve these problems. So I’m very optimistic that by applying our skills and the technology we develop, we can stay ahead of all these challenges. Look at the vaccine that we developed just this year to fight the virus. That’s a mark of what we can do when we put our minds to something, whether it’s putting a man on the Moon or sending the first woman to Mars. I think we’re in good shape for the future as well.

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ARTICLE is based on the special interview given by Dr. Thomas D.Jones for the Shalom World program “Glory to God.” To watch the episode visit: shalomworld.org/episode/an-astronauts-faith-drthomas-d-jones

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Dr. Thomas D Jones

Dr. Thomas D Jones is a scientist, author, pilot, and veteran NASA astronaut. He is the author of several space and aviation books of which Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir was named as one of the “Five Best” books on space by The Wall Street Journal. In 2018 Tom was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. He lives with his family in Florida.

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