Back on earth, astronaut reflects on trip, faith

HOUSTON — Patrick Forrester, the space shuttle astronaut who carried a piece of missions aviation history into space with him on a recent Discovery flight, encourages people to get personally involved in sharing the Gospel outside their comfort zones.

"I really encourage everybody that has not done it to go on at least a short-term mission trip, whether it's across town or around the world, because I think it's life-changing to see the need out there and the way that we can impact people," said Forrester.

Forrester carried with him a piece of the battery box from martyred missionary pilot Nate Saint's Piper PA-14 airplane when the space shuttle Discovery docked at the international space station in late August.

The plane part was provided by Mission Aviation Fellowship, an organization that transports missionaries, medical personnel, medicines and relief supplies into remote areas. Forrester plans to return the item to the fellowship along with a certificate confirming its presence on Discovery's flight.

"I'm looking forward to an opportunity to go up to Idaho and return it in person and hopefully talk to the employees and their families up there about space flight," he said, referring to the fellowship's headquarters in Nampa, Idaho.

Forrester described the piece of the battery box as roughly four by six inches. Saint was among five missionaries to Ecuador who were murdered on a sandbar in 1956 by a tribe of Waodani Indians.

"We're allowed to fly up to 10 things for organizations in what's called the official flight kit," Forrester said. "When I was looking at organizations that I felt were having an impact in the world and that had an impact on my life, this was just one of the ones that I wanted to honor."

In addition to the plane part, Forrester took a flag honoring a battalion of wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a memento from the military honor guard that handled his father's funeral this year.

This was the third space shuttle flight for Forrester, 52, a retired Army colonel and aviator who has been an astronaut since 1996. He performed spacewalks on the first two missions, in 2001 and 2007, and this time one of his primary roles was to operate the robotic arm that checks for damage on the shuttle.

"Ever since the Columbia accident we do that to make sure there was no damage on launch and make sure there was no damage once we were docked to the space station before we come home," he said.

Forrester described what it's like to have an expanded view of God's creation firsthand.

"It's always a beautiful view that we have when we're up there looking back at earth and looking out toward the stars and moon, out toward the heavens," he said. "I'm just always amazed at what I see.

"Sometimes people will expect it to be almost a religious experience when you go up there, and I guess knowing God as Creator and the miracles that I see all around me on earth, it's less of that for me and sometimes more what He's taught me just through my experiences of being an astronaut."

Forrester doesn't expect to travel to space again, given that there are only six remaining shuttle missions before the scheduled end of the space shuttle program. Those six flights have been assigned.

With a strong interest in missions, Forrester has hopes of returning to the mission field on short-term and possibly long-term trips.

"I don't have any mission trips planned right now, mainly because of just returning from this flight. I've had quite a bit of post-flight travel and presentations that we do," he said. "I look forward to my next mission trip. I've missed it the past two years because of flying in space and training.

"Where it will be, I'm not really sure. I do have a desire to go back to Africa. We've been in Uganda a couple of times and South Africa, and I have a feeling it may be that direction," Forrester said.

He has a good friend who worked as a physician for NASA and then became a missionary to Uganda. The man, who flies missions daily with Mission Aviation Fellowship, recently transferred to Lesotho, a landlocked country in South Africa.

"I'm hoping to get down there to see him in Lesotho," Forrester said.

As he encourages people to go on at least one mission trip, Forrester said the simple answer for why people must go is that it's the mandate of the Great Commission.

"I think we're all given certain talents and passions and gifts, and it's a matter of finding where those intersect with God's work, which is going on all around us. We have to figure out where we're supposed to have an impact on the world," he said.

"Once my eyes were opened to people giving their lives to God's work and how little it takes from us to do some of the same things, I think it's important, and whatever I can do to bring attention to that or support it with my own life and my own resources, that's what I want to do."

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