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For veteran astronaut and Catholic Tom Jones, space was a spiritual experience

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For veteran astronaut Thomas Jones, this month’s historic SpaceX launch brings back a flood of memories of his four shuttle missions and three space walks during the construction of the International Space Station.

“I still dream about it,” said Jones, 65, a parishioner and lector at St. John Neumann Church in Reston. A planetary scientist with NASA for 11 years, he spent a total of 53 days living and working in space, most recently in 2001.

Every time you have some time by yourself and get to look out the window, there is a tremendous feeling of gratitude that you are looking down with this unique perspective on your home world. You feel very special and very humble at the same time.” — Veteran astronaut Tom Jones

“I was thrilled to see the successful launch of the Resilience Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS,” said Jones, who has received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal and a long list of other awards and honors, including having an asteroid named for him. “Four of my friends, including two I worked with during my shuttle career, are now aboard the station for a six-month research mission. So they’re living my dream.” 

Jones’ memories of space include the rare experience of receiving holy Communion off-planet. The commander of the latest SpaceX launch, Mike Hopkins, and a handful of other Catholic astronauts also have received Communion in space. 

Jones said that on his first mission in 1994, three of the six astronauts on board were Catholics — himself, Sidney Gutierrez and Kevin Chilton, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. On a Sunday after Easter, they found time to celebrate a 10-minute communion service floating weightless on the flight deck of the space shuttle Endeavour, 125 miles above the Pacific Ocean. Jones wrote about the experience in “Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir” and reminisced about it last week in an interview with the Catholic Herald. 

They began on the dark side of the earth, but he said just as they finished receiving Communion, “there was a shaft of light that came through the cockpit windows,” as the sun rose, which it did 16 times a day on the orbiting shuttle. 

“With this beautiful light streaming into the cabin and the beautiful blue ocean below, I was at the point of tears,” he recalled, adding that the experience brought to mind the words of Scripture from Matthew 18:20, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I’m with you,” he said.

The view of Earth from the heavens is something few humans have been privileged to experience, and it’s a sight Jones knows he will never forget.

“Every time you have some time by yourself and get to look out the window, there is a tremendous feeling of gratitude that you are looking down with this unique perspective on your home world,” he said. “You feel very special and very humble at the same time. It is very moving and awe-inspiring.”

The spiritual experience of seeing Earth from space is something that also has been described by other astronauts, including Hopkins, who began his second stint on the space station Nov. 16. "When you see the Earth from that vantage point and see all the natural beauty that exists, it's hard not to sit there and realize there has to be a higher power that has made this," he said in 2016. 

Hopkins, who grew up Methodist, became a Catholic shortly before his first mission in 2013 and got permission to carry a pyx holding enough consecrated hosts to receive Communion once a week during his 24 weeks on the space station. "It was extremely, extremely important to me," he said.

Jones said he always found it easy to pray in space; he kept the Sunday readings and other Scripture passages in his mission notebook, and a rosary was always part of his personal gear. He said he also was able to receive Communion and to spend time gazing out the cockpit window at the earth on his three subsequent shuttle flights. 

Even with a doctorate in planetary sciences and decades of specialized scientific training, Jones didn’t hesitate to seek the help of all his patron saints and guardian angels, including his dad, who had died two years earlier.

On a mission, “you call them all in,” he said. “You need every bit of help … Otherwise it’s just you against the unforgiving universe.”

After the long absence of human spaceflight launching from the United States since the shuttle was retired in 2011, Jones is excited that NASA and its commercial partners “have restored the United States’ human launch capacity” and will soon “increase the science output of the station.”  

But when he talks about the future of space exploration, you can still see the Baltimore-area boy whose childhood drawings were filled with planes and missiles, and who grew up during the space race, wondering, “Did life once exist — does it still exist — on the red planet?”

“What truly excites me is the prospect of NASA’s Orion craft returning Americans to the moon within half a dozen years,” he said. “We haven’t been there since 1972, yet the largely unexplored moon is our training ground for longer journeys, to the nearby asteroids and eventually Mars.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020