Thomas Jones is an award-winning pilot, scientist and astronaut, who spoke to us to help the Register commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Between 1994 and 2001, Jones went on four space shuttle missions. He has spent 53 days working and living in space. In his 2006 book, Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir, he writes of the role his Catholic faith plays in his life as an astronaut.
He recently spoke to Register senior writer Tim Drake from California.
You’re a Catholic who has spent a lot of time in space. Were you able to receive Communion up there?
Yes. The first trip was the best. It was a really special moment. On my first trip there were three Catholics — myself, Kevin Chilton and Sid Gutierrez. Kevin was a fellow parishioner at St. Bernadette’s in Houston and was a Eucharistic minister. The first Sunday we were in space we were too busy, but on the second Sunday, the three of us received Christ just before dawn, just as this spray of brilliant sunlight lit us up.
It was almost simultaneous with receiving the host. Tears came to my eyes from the beauty of that moment. Then there was the brilliant blue of the ocean. We all shared in that inspiration. Kevin described it as the blue of the Virgin’s veil.
On my other flights, I think I might have been the only Catholic. I would carry the Eucharist in my space suit pocket on launch and all the way up into orbit and then put it in my clothes. In free-fall, things tend to wander off; you don’t want to lose Jesus.
Did you take sacramentals with you?
I would always carry a rosary. I rarely had time to pray an entire Rosary. I would pray in my sleep bunk or sleep bag as I was drifting off to sleep. I also flew with a St. Christopher medal that was blessed by my parish priest. That was a nice thing to have with. That brought me back [home].
Also, in my crew notebook I had all the Scripture readings appropriate for those days in space. Right next to the shuttle wiring diagram was the Gospel reading for the day.
How did you become an astronaut?
I wanted to be an astronaut since I was 10 and grew up watching the Apollo program and moon landings through high school. I flew in the Air Force and later received partial funding from NASA as a graduate fellow. I ended up working for NASA directly as a contractor scientist before being hired in 1990 as a mission specialist. I still do some consulting for them now.
Was being an astronaut everything you hoped it would be?
Yes. I spent 52-plus days in space aboard the space shuttles Endeavour, Atlantis and Columbia. I helped build the International Space Station and did three space flights. Each flight required greater work and challenge. On my final flight in 2001, I did everything you can do on the space shuttle: I delivered the bus-size laboratory Destiny to the space station and hooked up plumbing outside of the station — and did three space walks; it was the pièce de résistance.
Have there been any specific moments during your missions where you turned to prayer?
Yes. I’ve written about that in my 2006 book, Skywalking: An Astronaut’s Memoir. There I talk about the spiritual, human and emotional side of space flight. One way I got through those flights was turning to prayer and faith. That’s been a strong source of support for me, even more so when you’re faced with a stressful situation like a space flight.
Launch time is one of the most exhilarating and risk-ridden moments. You’re strapped in on the launch pad for two to three hours with nothing but your own thoughts. We try to cheer one another up to alleviate stress, but you think about the risks involved.
At two minutes prior to launch, you close your helmet visor, and there’s no more conversation. You worry about how your family will get through your absence. My two children were 8 and 5 when I started and 15 and 12 when I ended.
As my wife and children watched the launches from the roof of the control center, they had no guarantees other than what their faith could give them.
Were there any moments where you faced danger?
None, other than the usual of being blasted into space going from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in 8.5 minutes.
The acceleration is eye-popping, and there’s a lot of vibration and noise with that. You get through knowing that God was there with a hand on your shoulder. You summon all the favorite patron saints you can summon.
We didn’t face any physical emergencies, but on my third flight I faced great disappointment. We had trained for a spacewalk, but it had to be canceled because of a mechanical failure. I thought, “Why me, Lord?”
Later in the flight, I felt how especially privileged I was to be there. How could I complain about the gift?
On my next trip, I got three space walks. If a prayer was answered, that was one of them.
Is there a Catholic chaplain associated with NASA?
No. It’s not a military organization, so chaplains aren’t officially part of it. Priests from St. Bernadette’s Church in Houston would come out during the week-long quarantine period — and would have to be cleared by the flight surgeons — to say Mass at flight quarters. Even some of the non-Catholics joined me for Mass. We once had an Easter Sunday morning Mass in quarantine, celebrated by a priest from St. Clare’s parish in Houston.
Once, we had a prayer service on the beach close to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The priest who helped me to become an altar boy — Father Tom Bevan — came down as my guest, and we celebrated a service two days before launch. I went away from that with a lot of my worries lifted away.
How has going into space impacted your faith?
It doesn’t make you a theology professor, but it’s very personal and moving to be in space and have that view of creation.
During my final spacewalk, I took a moment in my space suit to look around and let that view soak in. It was probably the most moving moment of all four of my flights. There was that realization that here I am, one little person of 6 billion, and I’ve been given this special gift to view the planet and the universe from this special vantage point. I felt very small, but also very special, because God had granted me this opportunity to see his handiwork from there.
I felt privileged to have been given that gift of seeing how limitless the universe is that God made me a part of.
On the personal level, when you receive the Eucharist in space, there’s that physical connection with God coming into your body. The spacewalk coupled with that experience — that personal union — is so directly opposite to the vast scale of the universe. It’s a marvelous God who can do both of those things.
When you’re a student, you learn that God is everywhere. He’s also with you going five miles a second. He’s there. That was a great source of comfort to me when I was traveling in space. I was never alone.
Do you have a favorite patron saint?
Several. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is the patron of aviators. St. Joseph of Cupertino knew about free fall before any of us did [he levitated]. I recall one funny scene from the launch pad prior to a launch in 1994. We were held up by band winds, lying on our backs, all wondering which patron saint to ask prayers of.
I replied, “St. Joseph of Cupertino.”
The others asked, “Who’s that? St. Joseph of Capistrano?”
Tell me what you’re working on now?
As part of the Association of Space Explorers, we conducted a two-year effort to develop a plan to get the United Nations thinking about how countries can harness their knowledge to handle a potential asteroid strike.
How real is this danger?
It’s the process that wiped out the dinosaurs, and it continues to go on. The last dramatic one to hit was about 100 years ago in Siberia. It produced a 5-megaton blast. An asteroid the size of a soccer field weighs about a million tons. That would leave quite a crater in Los Angeles.
Currently, we have two of the three things necessary to stop such a strike. We have the telescopes to find them, and we have the technology in space to divert them. What we don’t have is a decision to do it in response to that kind of discovery. Over the next 10 to 15 years, we’ll know about so many more asteroids. The question is how to get the countries of the world in the U.N. to lay out plans ahead of time.
What are the most promising methods of diverting an oncoming asteroid?
There’s no need for Bruce Willis to drill a hole and blow one up. With enough warning time — and usually we would have years — you can send a small spacecraft to park near an asteroid and hover. It creates a weak gravity field. The tug exerted on it will start to pull the asteroid toward you, but it takes months of hovering. That tiny effect can change the velocity so that the asteroid will miss where the Earth would have been.
Another method involves ramming an object into the asteroid to change its momentum. You can smack it with something like a bullet several times. These are two elegant and conceptually easy ways to divert them.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.