Meet Some Catholic Astronauts

Finding Faith Beyond Earth’s Boundaries...

Astronaut Thomas D. Jones. In 1994, he flew as a mission specialist on successive flights of Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Astronaut Thomas D. Jones. In 1994, he flew as a mission specialist on successive flights of Space Shuttle Endeavour. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / NASA)

“Catholic” means universal, and the faith has not been confined to Earth’s gravitational pull. Many astronauts have been Catholic, and some spoke eloquently about their faith. Tragically, a few lost their lives.

Thomas Jones of Virginia spent 54 days in space on four shuttle missions. As a member of the Endeavour crew in 1994, Jones and two other crew members gathered for a brief Communion service on a Sunday. The consecrated Host had been carried aboard in a simple golden pyx. Moments after the three had shared the Body of Christ, dazzling white light burst through the cockpit windows. The sun had risen. The rays of light exposed the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. Tears moistened Jones's eyes. One of the other astronauts, gazing at the dazzling color of the waters below, remarked, “It’s the blue of the Virgin’s veil, Tom.”

Jones had come a long way from his days as a student at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School in Baltimore. But even while in space, he knew his place in the universe. He was “one unimportant astronaut.” He felt a deep “humility at my miniscule place in God's limitless universe.” But the glory of God was as wide and deep as space. “Riding the prow of the Space Station, I thought of how much God had done for me. ... I thought, ‘how limitless must be God’s gifts to those truly in need.’”

A devout Catholic, Rick Husband of Texas was aboard the space shuttle Columbia that broke up as it returned to Earth in 2003, killing its seven astronauts. “There is no way you can look at the stars, at the Earth, at the moon and not realize that there is a God out there who has plan and who laid out the universe,” he once insisted to a skeptical friend.

Willie McCool of Washington also was aboard the fatal flight of the Columbia. He was a convert to Catholicism. His conversion was not a matter of filling a hole in his life or turning over a new leaf after turmoil but a search for fulfillment. “I want to entrust my life to Jesus and see how high I can go, so He can love through me,” he told the Maryland priest who baptized him.

At his memorial service, Psalm 139 was solemnly read: “If I go to the heavens, you are there. … Even there your hand shall guide me and your right hand hold me fast.”

Christa McAuliffe, a teacher in New Hampshire, died in 1986 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded. She had been selected by NASA from more than 11,000 applicants to conduct experiments and teach lessons from space.

The oldest of five children, she had attended Marian High School near Boston and later taught confirmation classes at her parish. True to her ebullient spirit, she once had played a nun in her school’s production of The Sound of Music. Her cousin-priest, who had celebrated her marriage, led her funeral at her hometown church.

Mike Hopkins, a Catholic convert, told the Register in 2017 what it’s like to receive the Eucharist in space during his 2013 mission to the International Space Station: “I was able to take the Eucharist up — and I was able to have Communion, basically, every week. There were a couple of times when I received Communion on, I’ll say, special occasions: I did two spacewalks; so on the morning of both of those days, when I went out for the spacewalk, I had Communion. It was really helpful for me to know that Jesus was with me when I went out the hatch into the vacuum of space. And then I received my last Communion on my last day on orbit in the ‘Cupola,’ which is this large window that looks down at the Earth, and that was a very special moment before I came home.”

Drawn from 150 People, Places and Things You Never Knew Were Catholic by Jay Copp and the Register archive.