Hello to the Heavens: Pope Francis Phones the Space Station

Pope Francis made a phone call to the International Space Station today (Oct. 26) to ask its six occupants deep questions about humanity's place in the universe.

Calling from the Vatican in Rome, Pope Francis spoke with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency along with three NASA astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts.

"Your little glass palace in totality is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is the example that you give us," Pope Francis said through a translator. [Space Station Photos: The Expedition 53 Crew in Orbit]

Pope Francis speaks to the Expedition 53 crew at the International Space Station. (Image credit: CTV)

Pope Francis skipped the small talk and dove straight into the big questions. "As you're contemplating the undoubted limits of the universe, it makes us think about where we come from and where we're going," he said. "In light of your experiences in space, what are your thoughts regarding the place of man in the universe?"

"Holy Father, this is a complex question," Nespoli replied in Italian as NASA TV provided an English translation. "I feel like a technical person — an engineer — and I'm here among experiments, machinery and equipment. When we speak of these much more internal questions of where we come from, I remain rather perplexed. I think that our objective here is that of knowing our being and to fill our knowledge to understand what's around us," he said. "But on the other hand, an interesting thing is that the more we know, the more we realize how little we know."

Pope Francis then pointed out a painting in the room where he was speaking thatis based on the "Divine Comedy," a narrative poem written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the 14th century. That poem refers to love as a force "which moves the sun and the other stars." With that in mind, Pope Francis asked the crew, "What do you think about referring to love as the force that moves the universe?"

This question resonated with Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, who replied by telling the Pope about an audiobook he recently listened to called "The Little Prince." In the story, a young boy is ready to give up his life to care for the person who was closest to him. "The best example of what is love is perhaps what is shown in this book," Misurkin said through a translator.

Pope Francis also asked the crew to talk about their reasons for becoming astronauts and what they enjoy the most about spending time at the space station.

Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky shared his story and told of his grandfather, who was a chief engineer for Sputnik. "For me, it's great honor to continue what he was doing to fulfill his dreams, because spaceflight is the future of all humanity and always the frontier for new technologies and sciences," Ryazansky said.

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik told the Pope, "What gives me the greatest joy every day is to be able to look outside and see God's creation from his perspective. People cannot come up here and see the indescribable beauty of the Earth and not be touched in their souls," Bresnik said.

What Bresnik described is a psychological phenomenon known as the overview effect, which many space travelers have reported experiencing while looking at the Earth from afar. "As we see the peace and serenity of our planet … there's no borders, no conflict — it's just peaceful," Bresnik said. "We hope that an example of what we can achieve together [in space] sets an example for the rest of the world."

Pope Francis replied by telling Bresnik, "You have succeeded in understanding that Earth is too fragile … and that it is so capable of destroying itself or doing bad things."

At the end of the crew's discussion with Pope Francis, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba thanked the Pope "for making us reflect on things that are greater than we are."

Nespoli, Bresnik and Ryazansky launched to the space station in July, followed by Acaba, Misurkin and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei in September. The six crewmembers make up Expedition 53.

While this was the first time Pope Francis has called the space station, he isn't the first Pope to speak with astronauts in space. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI spoke with a group of 12 astronauts from Expedition 27 and the space shuttle Endeavour's STS-134 mission.

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Hanneke Weitering
Contributing expert

Hanneke Weitering is a multimedia journalist in the Pacific Northwest reporting on the future of aviation at FutureFlight.aero and Aviation International News and was previously the Editor for Spaceflight and Astronomy news here at Space.com. As an editor with over 10 years of experience in science journalism she has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.