As Catholics, we believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is, through transubstantiation at consecration the body and blood of Jesus Christ is made substantially and literally present in the Eucharist. That’s why when astronauts received Holy Communion in space, its not a far stretch to say that Jesus had boarded a spaceship.
“The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church 1377
On February 20, 1962, NASA launched the Friendship 7 mission with John Glenn aboard. With that mission, he became the first astronaut from the United States to orbit the Earth. Thirty-two years later, another first in space flight happened on the STS-59 mission of the space shuttle Endeavour – the first time Holy Communion was received in space.
Aboard the space shuttle was member of the flight crew Kevin P. Chilton, a eucharistic minister. Fellow astronaut Thomas D. Jones recounted the night he and two other crew members received the Eucharist for the first time ever in space in his book Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir:
I thanked God each night before falling asleep for these glorious views of Earth and for the success of our mission thus far. I asked for the continued safety of our crew and a joyful reunion with our families. I was conscious of the special gift of each day in space, aware of the unique privilege I had been granted. And I remembered Father Tom Bevan’s words on the beach back in Florida. When Sunday rolled around again, two weeks after Easter, it seemed particularly appropriate to share our thanks and thoughts on what we had seen. Sid, [Gutierrez], Kevin [Chilton], and I — all Catholics — gathered on the flight deck one orbital night for a short Communion service.
Kevin, a Eucharistic minister, carried the Blessed Sacrament with him, the hosts protected within a simple golden pyx. The three of us thanked God for the views of His universe, for good companions, and for the success granted our crew so far. Then Kevin shared the Body of Christ with Sid and me, and we floated weightless on the flight deck, silently reflecting on this moment of peace and true communion with Christ.
As we meditated quietly in the darkened cockpit, a dazzling white light burst through space and into the cabin. Pure radiance from the risen sun streamed through Endeavour’s forward cockpit windows and bathed us in its warmth. What else could this be but a sign? — God’s gentle affirmation of our union with Him. Drifting parallel to the floor, I rolled away from my crewmates, embarrassed at my reaction to that singular sunrise. Through tears I looked instead through the overhead windows at the Pacific below, the dawn painting its surface with a rich, limitless blue.
“Look at that,” I called out almost unconsciously to my friends. From the living water below, we drank in hues unmatched by the palette of any human artist. After a moment, Kevin said simply, “It’s the blue of the Virgin’s veil, Tom.” He was right. He had found the perfect way to express the vision we were seeing out the window.