CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - 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 the shuttle commander'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 "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," 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, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had surgery to repair her skull Wednesday, four months after being shot in the head and nearly killed at a political event in Tucson, Ariz. She managed to attend her husband's launch Monday.
Kelly told the pope that borders cannot be seen from space and noted that on Earth, people usually fight over 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.
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."
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.