CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The 12 astronauts circling the Earth received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday 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. Two Italians are among the space fliers: Roberto Vittori and Paolo Nespoli.
Seated before a television set tuned to NASA's live broadcast from orbit, Benedict said he admired the astronauts' courage, discipline and commitment.
The pontiff said he hopes shuttle commander Mark Kelly's wife continues to improve. Kelly's wife, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, underwent a skull implant on Wednesday, four months after being shot in the head in Tucson, Ariz., during a political event.
Kelly, who was raised Catholic, thanked him for his kind words.
Benedict also expressed concern for Nespoli, whose 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. "Do you feel isolated and alone, or do you feel united among ourselves in a community that follows you with attention and affection?"
"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.
"I felt very far, but also very close, and the thought of feeling all of you near me at this time has been a great relief."
Nespoli will end his five-month space station mission Monday, returning to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule.
He will bring back with him a silver medal that Vittori took up with him aboard Endeavour, that he got from the pope. It depicts Michelangelo's "Creation of Man."
Vittori floated the medallion in front of him, then gently tossed it to Nespoli, positioned on the opposite end of the front row of astronauts.
"I brought it with me to space, and he will take down on Earth to then give back to you," Vittori told the pontiff.
Vittori said he prays in space. The workdays are intense, he noted.
"But we all have an opportunity when the nights come to look out ... to look down on Earth. Our planet, the blue planet is beautiful," he said.
The long-distance papal audience lasted nearly 20 minutes. It was arranged by the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. NASA provided technical support from Mission Control in Houston.
Just 2½ hours earlier, the shuttle astronauts completed a survey of a small gash in the belly of Endeavour to ensure their safety when they return to Earth on June 1.
NASA ordered the inspection during the next-to-last shuttle flight, even though managers said there was no reason to be alarmed by the damage generated by Monday's liftoff. Experts on the ground will analyze the images that were beamed down during the hourlong operation.
The extra safety checks were put in place following the 2003 Columbia disaster.
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