Image: Pope Benedict XVI makes video call to ISS
Osservatore Romano  /  EPA
Pope Benedict XVI makes a video call to the International Space Station on Saturday , commending the 12 astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour on their "courage and discipline."
By
updated 5/21/2011 5:44:15 PM ET 2011-05-21T21:44:15

Pope Benedict XVI had a direct line to the heavens Saturday, with NASA's help.

Speaking from the Vatican, the pontiff bestowed a historic blessing upon the 12 astronauts circling Earth during the first-ever papal call to space, wishing a swift recovery for shuttle commander Mark Kelly's wounded congresswoman wife and condolences for a station astronaut mourning his mother's death.

The "extraordinary" conversation, as Benedict described it, occurred after the Endeavour astronauts inspected a small gash in the shuttle's belly, to ensure their safe return to Earth after departing the International Space Station in just over a week. NASA later determined the damage posed no threat to the next-to-last flight in the 30-year shuttle program.

Seated at a table before a television set tuned to NASA's live broadcast from orbit, Benedict told the space travelers that "you are our representatives spearheading humanity's exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future." He said he admired their courage, discipline and commitment.

"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 pontiff said, reading from prepared remarks. "I know that Mark Kelly's wife was a victim of a serious attack, and I hope her health continues to improve."

Kelly, who is of Irish-Catholic descent, thanked the pope for his kind words. His wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had surgery to repair her skull Wednesday, four months after being shot in the head at a political event in Tucson, Ariz. She was nearly killed, yet managed to attend her husband's launch last Monday.

Kelly told the pope that borders cannot be seen from space and noted that down on Earth, people usually fight for resources. At the space station, solar power provides unlimited energy, "and if those technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence," he said.

Astronauts' messages for young people
Benedict asked about the future of the planet and the environmental risks it faces, and wanted to know what the astronauts' most important message would be for young people when they return home.

Space station astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. spoke of the paper-thin layer of atmosphere "that separates every living thing from the vacuum of space." And shuttle crewman Mike Fincke described how he and his colleagues "can look down and see our beautiful planet Earth that God has made."

"However, if we look up, we can see the rest of the universe, and the rest of the universe is out there for us to explore," Fincke said. "The International Space Station is just one symbol, one example, of what human beings can do when we work together constructively."

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Near the end of the 18-minute conversation, Benedict expressed concern for astronaut Paolo Nespoli, whose 78-year-old mother died in northern Italy at the beginning of May while he was serving on the space station.

"How have you been living through this time of pain on the International Space Station?" the pope asked.

"Holy Father, I felt your prayers and everyone's prayers arriving up here where outside the world ... we have a vantage point to look at the Earth and we feel everything around us," Nespoli replied in Italian.

Nespoli will end his five-month space station mission Monday, returning to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Papal medal in space
He will bring back with him a silver medal that shuttle astronaut Roberto Vittori took up with him on Endeavour, that was provided by the pope. It depicts Michelangelo's "Creation of Man," the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Vittori floated the commemorative coin in front of him, then gently tossed it to Nespoli, positioned on the opposite end of the front row of astronauts.

"I brought it with me to space, and he will take down on Earth to then give back to you," Vittori told the pontiff. The astronaut said he prays in space "for me, for our families, for our future."

The long-distance papal audience was arranged by the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA provided technical support from Mission Control in Houston.

Inside the ancient frescoed halls of the Vatican — where email wasn't even in wide use until a few years ago — the call was received with visible awe.

The 84-year-old Benedict chuckled when one of the astronauts began floating up at the end of the transmission. He waved to the U.S., Italian and Russian crew at the beginning and end of the call.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the call was evidence of the pope's desire to communicate with people however possible, be it sending a text message with a prayer of the day or a YouTube channel playing church teachings.

Pope Paul VI sent a greeting to the moon with Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, but it was in a silicon disk that contained goodwill messages from numerous countries and was left on the Sea of Tranquility. "I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers, at the moon and stars you set in place," said Paul VI, quoting from Psalms 8.

Wonder ... and work as well
Mission Control, meanwhile, was glowing. Flight controllers watched on monitors as the pope got set up for the interview.

"It was just an amazing event, really a beautiful event," said lead flight director Derek Hassmann.

Before gathering for the VIP call, the astronauts conducted an hourlong survey of the gouge in Endeavour's belly, using a 100-foot extension boom.

Image: Tile
NASA
This image shows the primary damaged tile on the space shuttle Endeavour that engineers are studying to determine whether additional inspections or repairs are required while the shuttle is docked at the International Space Station.

Mission managers ordered the inspection as a precaution, saying there was no reason to be alarmed by the damage generated by Monday's liftoff on Endeavour's final voyage. Experts on the ground immediately began analyzing the 3-D images beamed down, and concluded that the shuttle is safe for re-entry.

The extra safety checks were put in place following the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The gouge — spanning two or three tiles — measures just 3 inches by 2.4 inches, and is less than an inch deep.

Similar damage was seen on a flight by Endeavour in 2007, and that too required no repair. By coincidence, that 2007 mission was commanded by Kelly's identical twin brother, Scott.

Still ahead for Mark Kelly and his crew are three more spacewalks, the next one on Sunday. Landing is scheduled for June 1.

AP writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Vatican City.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Endeavour comes home for good

Interactive: Endeavor's final mission

  1. Above: Interactive Endeavor's final mission
  2. Timeline Space shuttle timeline

Photos: The life of space shuttle Endeavour

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  1. Special delivery

    Endeavour was the last space shuttle to join NASA's fleet: It was built to replace the shuttle Challenger, which was lost in an explosion shortly after launch in 1986. This view shows Endeavour perched atop a modified Boeing 747 on May 2, 1991, beginning the ferry flight from Palmdale, Calif. - where the shuttle was built - to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. First liftoff

    Endeavour lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1992, beginning its first mission. The STS-49 mission's primary task was the repair of the Intelsat VI telecommunications satellite. Endeavour was the only shuttle to make its maiden flight from Pad 39B. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grab that satellite!

    Endeavour astronauts Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after making a six-handed "capture" on May 13, 1992. The satellite failed to rise above low Earth orbit when it was launched in 1990. During Endeavour's maiden mission, astronauts retrieved the satellite, attached it to a new upper-stage booster and relaunched it to its intended geosynchronous orbit. This mission marked the first time that three people from the same spacecraft walked in space at the same time. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Science in space

    Endeavour astronauts Jan Davis, left, and Mae Jemison prepare to deploy the lower body negative pressure apparatus on Sept. 15, 1992. Scientific research was the main focus of this Spacelab-J mission, also known as STS-47. The mission's crew included the first African-American woman to fly in space (Mae Jemison) and the only husband-and-wife team to go into space together (Jan Davis and Mark Lee). (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fixing Hubble

    Astronauts flew on Endeavour to take on the first Hubble servicing mission in December 1993. In this picture, spacewalkers Story Musgrave and Jeffrey Hoffman perform an orbital ballet. The coastline of western Australia is visible below. The complex and highly successful repair mission allowed Hubble, which was launched with a defective mirror, to see into the universe with unprecedented clarity. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the station

    Endeavour spacewalker Jim Newman holds onto the International Space Station's Unity connecting module as he removes covers and works on connecting cables on Dec. 7, 1998. The STS-88 flight marked the shuttle fleet's first space station assembly mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Erroneous endeavor

    The shuttle Endeavour sits on its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 11, 2007. "Endeavor" is spelled incorrectly on the banner. The shuttle was named after the HMS Endeavour, the British sailing ship that carried Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771. That's why Endeavour reflects the British spelling of the word. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spacewalkers at work

    During the first spacewalk of the STS-118 mission, on Aug. 11, 2007, astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Canada's Dave Williams (out of frame) attach a new segment of the International Space Station's truss and retract a collapsible radiator. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Class portrait

    The crew members of Endeavour's STS-118 crew pose for their official portrait on Aug. 8, 2007. From left are Rick Mastracchio, Barbara Morgan, pilot Charles Hobaugh, mission commander Scott Kelly, Tracy Caldwell, Canadian astronaut Dave Williams and Alvin Drew. During this flight, Morgan became the first educator astronaut to go into orbit. In 1986, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the Challenger explosion. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great view

    Endeavour spacewalker Rick Mastracchio relocates communications equipment on the International Space Station during an outing on Aug. 15, 2007. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A gouge in the tiles

    Tiles on the underside of the space shuttle Endeavour show evidence of damage in a photo taken on Aug. 12, 2007, using the shuttle's robotic arm and a camera-tipped extension boom. The close-up imagery helped mission managers determine that the gouge would pose no threat during Endeavour's atmospheric re-entry. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Eye of the hurricane

    Crew members aboard the shuttle Endeavour captured this picture of Hurricane Dean's eye in the Caribbean on Aug. 18, 2007. The STS-118 mission ended on Aug. 21, one day earlier than planned, to avoid potential complications due to the storm. Forecasters worried that Hurricane Dean could have swept over Houston around the time of landing - but in the end, the storm took a different course. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. In control

    NASA Administrator Michael Griffin watches the liftoff of the space shuttle Endeavour from the Launch Control Center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 14, 2008. The STS-126 mission delivered two spare bedrooms as well as a second kitchen and bathroom to the International Space Station. (Bill Ingalls / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Repairs at the pad

    Workers perform repairs on the shuttle Endeavour's external fuel tank at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on June 14, 2009. The launch team detected a leak of hydrogen fuel from the tank, forcing a delay in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. The mission's main task was the delivery of the final segment of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. (Tim Jacobs / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes

    A giant bolt of lightning hits Endeavour's Florida launch pad on July 10, 2009. Technical problems and severe weather forced five delays in Endeavour's STS-127 launch. (Gene Blevins / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Liftoff at last!

    The space shuttle Endeavour rises from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on July 15, 2009, on the STS-127 mission's sixth launch attempt. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Parting glance

    The space shuttle Endeavour is photographed from the International Space Station soon after its departure on July 28, 2009. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Twilight of the shuttle

    The shuttle Endeavour is silhouetted against different layers of the sunlit atmosphere during its approach to the International Space Station on Feb. 9, 2010. The primary payloads for Endeavour's STS-130 mission were the Tranquility module and the Cupola observation deck and control station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Check out this view!

    Astronaut George Zamka, Endeavour's commander for the STS-130 mission, peeks out a window of the International Space Station's newly installed Cupola observation deck on Feb. 19, 2010. The Cupola provides an unparalleled view of Earth below. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tanks for the memories

    The external fuel tank for Endeavour's final mission, STS-134, is transported to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 14, 2010. STS-134's main payload is the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an international physics experiment. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The view from above

    The space shuttle Endeavour is lowered into place for attachment to its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 1, 2011. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Greeting the day

    The sun rises as photographers gather on a hill to take pictures shortly after the shuttle Endeavour's arrival at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on March 11, 2011. (Roberto Gonzalez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Into the clouds

    Photographers track the space shuttle Endeavour's ascent as it pierces the clouds and disappears after launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. (Craig Rubadoux / Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Godspeed, Endeavour!

    Spectators react as the space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 16. Hundreds of thousands of people watched the start of the next-to-last space shuttle flight. (Scott Audette / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Above the clouds

    Stefanie Gordon captured this remarkable picture of the space shuttle Endeavour rising above Florida's cloud cover on May 16 while she was on a commercial flight from New York to Palm Beach, Fla. (Stefanie Gordon / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The last spacewalk

    NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff holds a handrail during the fourth and last spacewalk conducted by the shuttle Endeavour's crew at the International Space Station on May 27. Chamitoff and astronaut Michael Fincke (visible in the reflections from Chamitoff's helmet visor) transferred an inspection boom system, completing U.S. assembly of the station. The May 27 outing marked the last scheduled spacewalk to be conducted by a space shuttle crew. (Nasa T.V. via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Night passage

    Backdropped by a nighttime view of Earth and the starry sky, the space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked to the International Space Station on May 28. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Landing in the dark

    The space shuttle Endeavour lands for the last time at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 1, 2011. The touchdown capped Endeavour's 16-day mission to deliver a $2 billion science experiment to the International Space Station on NASA's next-to-last shuttle flight. (Joe Skipper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Blastoff into history

    A NASA poster pays tribute to Endeavour and its space missions over the past two decades. The shuttle is shown rising to orbit, with patches for each of its missions laid out in a spiral. The HMS Endeavour, which inspired the spaceship's name, is shown at lower right. At upper left, pictures of Endeavour are framed in the windows of the Cupola. The background image depicts the nebula NGC 602 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was first serviced by Endeavour in 1993. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. NASA
    Above: Slideshow (29) Shuttle Endeavour, this is your life
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014
  3. Adam Zyglis / Buffalo News, PoliticalCartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Shuttle era draws to a close

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