Son’s space station stint evokes St. Hubert parishioners’ anxiety, pride

| November 3, 2017 | 0 Comments
International Space Station

Pope Francis speaks from the Vatican to astronauts aboard the International Space Station Oct. 26. Mark Vande Hei is standing in back row, first from left. CNS

Tom and Mary Vande Hei have gone out to the backyard of their Chanhassen home a few times in recent weeks to look up at the night sky, but they haven’t been looking for stars, comets or the northern lights.

They want to catch a glimpse of their son Mark. He is a NASA astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station with five other astronauts. A 1985 graduate of Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park, he and the crew launched Sept. 13 in Kazakhstan.

Tom and Mary have been closely following their oldest son’s journey, and they keep track of when the space station orbits overhead. Mark, 50, is married with two children and lives in Houston.

“Tom has an app on his phone to tell us when the space station is going over Minnesota or going over Chanhassen,” Mary said. “And, we’ve run outside and watched it. We’ve done that a couple times to see it go over. That’s very touching to us. It’s very real, then. You can see it very clearly. It’s bright and it’s fast.”

NASA portrait of Mark Vande Hei, a Benilde-St. Margaret’s alumnus.

Tom and Mary, who belong to St. Hubert in Chanhassen, said they feel a mixture of pride and anxiety about their son’s space travels. They said he did not look healthy right after the launch. But, he has since improved, and they are hoping the effects of weightlessness won’t cause any further trouble as he orbits more than 200 miles above earth.

Mark will be in space for about five-and-a-half months, with his landing set for sometime in late February. The highlight of the trip so far for his parents was a video conference with him in early October.

“We actually had a few people over to our home and we had him up on the TV downstairs,” Mary said. “People were able to ask him questions, and he could talk to us. That was really nice to actually see him for more than an hour, interacting and looking good. … Just seeing him, truthfully, was the most wonderful thing. It didn’t matter what he said.”

Tom and Mary went to Kazakhstan in September for the launch. Back home, BSM students and staff made watching the launch an after-school event. Principal Sue Skinner was happy to give her students that opportunity.

“Watching the launch was amazing,” she wrote in an email. “We were so proud to know that a Red Knight was heading up to space. It was exciting to watch the launch live at school. Mark was pleased to know that we made it an event.”

Skinner said she is working to schedule a video conference with Mark while he is in space. Mark is also able to communicate by email and phone.

One significant caller was Pope Francis. Mark had made a special request to hear from the pope, and the Vatican said yes. Tom and Mary watched it on YouTube.

“That was pretty awesome,” Tom said. “This whole experience has been so surreal, and this was just another example of that.”

During the Oct. 26 call with Pope Francis, Mark made a prayer request for his dying uncle, Reggie.

“The day after the video conference with the pope, my brother had an unbelievably good day,” Tom said. “He was very weak, but he could smile and speak a little bit, move his legs and arms. He was pretty immobilized and non-responsive for a while [before that].”

Reggie died peacefully the following day, Oct. 29.

His uncle’s death could have made Mark feel the vast distance between himself and his family, but he was able to make a surprising visual connection.

The family’s relatives live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and shortly after Mark learned of his uncle’s death, he was looking through the Space Station’s cupola and realized they were over Green Bay. “He took a photo and emailed it to us, and we’re going to bring it to the family when we go to the funeral,” Mary said. “We just have felt the Holy Spirit through all of this, truly. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Tom said Mark called the timing of his passing over Green Bay shortly after Reggie’s death “a miraculous opportunity.”

Tom and Mary look forward to their son’s return to earth in February. He will land in Kazakhstan, then eventually head back to Houston. His parents would like him to make a trip to Minnesota.

“We certainly hope he comes here,” Mary said. “[But] it’s going to take a while. It takes a long time for them to recuperate.”

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Category: Faith and Culture, Featured