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Pope gives blessing to astronauts


Video feeds at Johnson Space Centre show the Pope talking with astronauts (AP/Houston Chronicle)

Video feeds at Johnson Space Centre show the Pope talking with astronauts (AP/Houston Chronicle)

Video feeds at Johnson Space Centre show the Pope talking with astronauts (AP/Houston Chronicle)

The 12 astronauts circling the Earth have received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI in the first ever papal call to space.

The pope addressed the crews of the linked space shuttle Endeavour and International Space Station from the Vatican, making special mention of the US commander's wounded congresswoman wife and the recently deceased mother of one of the two Italian astronauts on board.

The historic communication - "extraordinary" in the pope's words - took place just a couple of hours after the shuttle astronauts finished inspecting a small gash in Endeavour's belly to ensure their safety when returning to Earth. It is the next-to-last flight in Nasa's 30-year shuttle programme.

Seated at a table before a television set tuned to Nasa's live broadcast from orbit, Benedict said the space fliers are "our representatives spearheading humanity's exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future".

He said he admired their courage, discipline and commitment, adding: "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."

Mr Kelly, who is Catholic, thanked the pope for his kind words. His wife, US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, had surgery to repair her skull on Wednesday, four months after being shot in the head at a political event in her district in Tucson, Arizona.

The shuttle commander told the pope that borders cannot be seen from space and noted that 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.

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 was not even in wide use until a few years ago - the call was received with visible awe.

The 84-year-old German-born Benedict chuckled when one of the astronauts began floating up at the end of the transmission. He waved to the crew at the beginning and end of the call.

PA Media