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Science and faith were not enemies on Columbia



The remarkable thing is how unremarkable it is here. The "it" is the religious dimension of the Columbia tragedy and the importance of religious faith in the lives of the astronauts. The loss of the space shuttle is a major science story, but it was lived here as a spiritual trial. Science and faith were not enemies by those who flew Columbia.

CLEAR LAKE CITY, Tex. - Last Friday, I was on the first tour of the Johnson Space Center since the fateful morning of Feb. 1. The disaster is so fresh that post-Columbia adjustments have yet to be made. The "Columbia" banner still hangs in the Astronaut Training Facility, alongside the banner for the other three shuttles there is no Challenger banner. Even more awkward is that the flight simulators still offer visitors the opportunity to try their hand at "landing the shuttle" and the shuttle in question is Columbia.

Flowers and messages still adorn the front gate. Right beside the Johnson Space Center sign a small tent has been erected and designated as a place for prayer. Right there on public property at the NASA gate. No one seems to mind.

For a Canadian accustomed to public events being excruciatingly scripted to avoid any religious dimension, this past week in Texas has been a lesson that public events ring true only if they reflect the public they claim to represent. And in Texas, and for these astronauts, grief is very much grief animated by faith in God.

A Texas joke has it that football high school, college, professional is the real state religion. Yet it is instructive that the cathedral of football here, Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, was actually opened in 1971 with a Billy Graham crusade. He returned last fall 31 years later and filled it up again 82,000 people, two nights in a row.

But it would be a mistake to say that Texas makes the astronauts religious; it is just easier to be open about religious faith here. One of my fellow journalists commented that this town, home to so many in the space program, seemed to have a church or daycare centre on every corner.

There is, of course, a common prejudice that advanced scientific learning is inimical to religious faith. That is only a prejudice though. To the contrary, some of the greatest pioneers in the history of science were motivated precisely by their religious faith; St. Albert the Great, a Catholic priest, was perhaps the greatest natural scientist of the 13th century, to give an early example.

Yet with the rise of modern science it was thought that scientists had to make do with a kind of "philosopher's God" one who was the cause of all things, but who certainly did not exist in a personal relationship with creation. That was not the God worshipped by the astronauts here in Clear Lake. Theirs was not the distant God of design, but the God who guides his creation to salvation and has a relationship with each person.

Commander William C. McCool
Pilot of the STS-107

Columbia pilot, Navy Commander Willie McCool, on his first shuttle mission, was a Catholic. His faith was not the ceremonial vestige of a religious family upbringing. It was something he chose 10 years ago when he was baptized into the Catholic Church. The Maryland priest who instructed him in the faith said that McCool felt he could be a better husband and father to his three children "by putting his life more into Christ's hands." McCool invited that priest to the Columbia launch last month in Florida, and received the sacrament of confession before going into space.

At the McCool family parish here, St. Bernadette, the scene last Friday was low key. There were no special banners or wreaths or services. The pastor, Fr. J.J. McCarthy simply said, "We have many things to pray for this week," as the parish began its First Friday devotional prayers.

One of the parishioners told me that McCool, like the other astronauts in the parish, did not draw attention to himself. At St. Bernadette's, it is not considered unusual for an astronaut to be a parishioner there is no conflict between science and religion on the streets of Clear Lake.

Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Anderson, Columbia's payload commander, graduated from Creighton University in Omaha in 1990 with a master's degree in physics. Creighton is a Catholic university, where Jesuit Father Thomas McShane is a physics professor. Father McShane received an e-mail from Anderson before the launch, asking for his prayers during the mission.

Both Anderson and Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, were members of Clear Lake's Grace Community Church. It was Husband who, gathering the astronauts on the night before launch, encouraged them with a biblical passage he recited from heart. It was from the beginning of the Book of Joshua, as the Jews prepared to cross into the promised land, and the opening words were fitting: Be strong and courageous.

"If I ended up at the end of my life having been an astronaut but having sacrificed my family along the way or living my life in a way that didn't glorify God, then I would look back on it with great regret and having become an astronaut would not really have mattered all that much," Husband said on a videotape that was played again at Grace Community after his death.

The international worlds of science, and engineering, and exploration suffered a terrible loss last week. So too did the local communities of faith.


Father Raymond J. De Souza, "Science and faith were not enemies on Columbia." National Post, (Canada) 10 February, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Father Raymond J. De Souza is a Catholic priest in Ontario, Canada.

Copyright 2003 National Post



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved