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Church Establishes Link Between Faith and Space

Religion

Congregation that lost two members aboard Columbia reflects close ties between scientific exploration and religious devotion.

February 08, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- As men of science and deep religious conviction, Columbia astronauts Rick Husband and Michael Anderson moved easily between disciplines that were seemingly at odds. "Faith filled the gaps when science had no answers," said their friend Rick Devera, a former NASA engineer.

Devera was standing on the steps of Grace Community Church near the Johnson Space Center, one of thousands at a memorial this week for the two Columbia crew members known for their devotion to a church that one pastor said was "full of rocket scientists."

In two decades the 5,000-member nondenominational church, led by Senior Pastor Steve Riggle, has grown from borrowed space in a junior high school to a sprawling complex of classrooms and nurseries surrounding a sanctuary of graceful arches, brass chandeliers and oversized projection screens.

This fall, the church will move to an even larger site, a 100,000-square-foot center on 86 acres that will eventually accommodate 10,000 people. It's an unlikely accomplishment in a community of aerospace engineers, Riggle said.

"If you said: 'What kind of church is going to work in a scientific community?' it wouldn't be our church. We strongly preach the Bible and fervently worship the Lord," Riggle said. "You wouldn't think we'd be the biggest congregation in the community, which I think is God's idea of humor. But I think the true scientist, the more they discover the intricacies of how God put everything together, the more they have to admit that this did not happen by accident."

In a place where the streets are named after past space missions, such as Saturn and Gemini, and parks are equipped with play rocket ships, the great beyond is not an abstract concept. It's a daily fact of life.

The countless references to the celestial abyss are tangible reminders that "we are part of a larger universe," said Phyllis Hammer, part of the 130-member church choir in which Husband was a tenor and soloist. "We aren't alone."

Expressions of spirituality have always been part of the astronaut experience. Before Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon's surface in 1969, he drank from a tiny silver chalice and performed a Communion service. While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis, their words transmitted to Earth in a scratchy but moving radio broadcast.

Shuttle astronauts have carried religious texts, flags from their churches and photographs of Sunday school classes into space.

Like Columbia payload specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space, former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman carried his Jewish religious culture and heritage with him on the shuttle: a mezuzah, a spinning dreidel and a miniature Torah from which Hoffman read the first lines of Genesis.

"We go into space to perform scientific and technical activities, but we are human beings, not robots," said Hoffman, who teaches at MIT. "Almost everybody who has even a shred of human sensitivity is genuinely awed at the experience."

Former astronaut Story Musgrave, who flew on six shuttle missions between 1983 and 1996, said that space travel allowed him to expand his spiritual horizons, or, as he put it, "to be in a different place in nature with a different point of view."

"For me, face to face with the cosmos is face to face with God," he said.

Clearly, melding science and spirituality in space was not the sole domain of prayer partners Husband and Anderson, though the two were more outspoken about religion than many other astronauts.

As the crew's payload commander, Anderson, who held degrees in physics and astronomy, oversaw more than 80 science missions during Columbia's flight. Last month, the 43-year-old Air Force lieutenant colonel spoke to the congregation about God.

"He asked us to pray that, as important as the shuttle mission was, somehow his faith and Rick's would give testimony that transcended the purpose of the mission," Riggle said.

In the last-request forms astronauts routinely complete before each flight, Husband asked Riggle for a favor. "He wrote that, if anything happens to him, 'tell them about Jesus. He's real to me,' " Riggle said.

Husband also recorded a series of devotional videotapes for his two children to play in his absence. They watched the tapes each of the 16 days their father was in space, including the day he died.

"That's a legacy they will never, ever lose," Husband's widow, Evelyn, said in a videotaped conversation involving Riggle, Evelyn Husband and Anderson's widow, Sandy, which was played during the memorial service.

"I'm not in despair," said Sandy Anderson. "I know where Michael is."

Evelyn Husband agreed. "This is the pits. I can't think of anything worse than this, but he is carrying us," she said.

As the mourners filed out of the chapel after Wednesday's service, their twin loyalties were evident in the gold crosses that dangled next to space shuttle lapel pins and in the cars that bore NASA parking stickers and the stylized fish symbol of Christian faith.

Many left the morning service only to return that night for the church's regular midweek prayer service. Like people everywhere, said Executive Pastor Garrett Booth, these men and women of science want more than knowledge. They seek understanding.

"When NASA is done with their investigation, they'll have a timeline, a hangar full of materials and a report that may tell you the sequence of events," Booth said. "But that's only one element of what occurred here. As much as we can discover scientifically, it still doesn't answer all the questions."

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