On October 26, 2017 Pope Francis conversed with astronauts orbiting Earth on the International Space Station, discussing questions as diverse as man’s place in the universe, the fragility of life and the planet and international cooperation.
“Astronomy makes us contemplate the horizons of the universe and raises questions in us: Where did we come from? Where are we going?” the Pope said. Then he posed his first question: “What is your thought on man’s place in the universe?”
Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli responded by saying that man’s place in the universe is a “complex question.” He noted that being in space has helped him to realize that the more humanity learns, the more clearly we can see how much we still do not know.
As reported in National Catholic Registrar, Nespoli further wishes that theologians, philosophers, poets, writers can come to the outer space, and explore the meaning of life.
For Josef Aschbacher, director of the earth observation programs for the astronauts, speaking with the Pope was an “experience of a lifetime.” He added the Pope’s questions were all “very interesting” because they have to do with “our life as humanity.”
American Randolph Bresnik said that what gives him the greatest joy in space is being able “to look outside and see God’s creation maybe a little bit from his perspective. People cannot come up here and see the indescribable beauty of our Earth and not be touched in their souls.”
There’s an incredible peace and serenity to our planet when you see it in orbit, he said, and there are “no borders, no conflict — it’s just peaceful.” He also said that from space you can see “the thinness of the atmosphere, and it makes you realize how fragile our existence here is.”
The astronauts also spoke with Francis about their own diversity and how it is an asset in their work on the International Space Station. “As we work here on the space station and in our international partnership, we hope that the example of what we can achieve together is an example for all the world and humanity,” Bresnik said.
Francis said that although our society is very individualistic, cooperation is essential in life, asking about examples of collaboration in their work.
“It’s our diversity that makes us stronger,” Joseph Acaba an American scientist said. “And I think we need to embrace who we are as individuals and respect those around us. And by working together, we can do things much better than we can as individuals.”
Francis referred to the Italian poet Dante who described love as the force that moves the universe. Cosmonaut Misurkin responded that he had listened to an audio version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince and was struck by the child’s understanding of love. “A little boy was ready to sacrifice his life to come back to, protect and love his only flower, the being closest to him,” he said. “That’s love in my understanding.”
The encounter between the astronauts on the space station and the Pope was a fascinating intersection between religion and science, said Aschbacher, noting that science can assist in the search for God through its curiosity to better understand our world.
Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, added that “there is no doubt that science is a way of searching for the truth” and though religion and science may have different ways of searching, they still have the same goal.