The weekend of September 29-October 2 was a celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or VATT, in Tucson, Arizona, USA.
A central part of the celebration was a gala dinner on the 29th, after which Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr. discussed space, relationships, and faith with Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory. Bolden is a retired US Marine pilot and astronaut who served as the head of NASA from 2009 to 2017. He is also a man of faith, active in the Episcopal Church.
Consolmagno began the discussion by asking Bolden something that all those present at the dinner really wanted to know: “What’s it like to be in space?… the first time you got into space?”
For his first space flight in 1986, Bolden piloted US Space Shuttle Columbia. He described how he had been well-trained for his duties as a pilot; however, he said, he was not prepared emotionally for what he experienced. He described what he felt as the shuttle was passing over Africa, the land of his ancestral roots, about fifteen minutes into the flight:
When I looked out the window, the beauty and the magnificence of the planet was just breathtaking, and there were no lines or anything, and I literally cried. But immediately I said, “you know, all the stuff I have been taught all my life about differences in people, and about differences in countries, we created between this ear and that ear [gesturing to his head]. And I realized that, no, that’s not the way God intended it to be. This is the way that God created this planet.
Thus he decided that he would always work to urge people to recognize our common humanity. Bolden noted the deep roots of his family in the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches, and commented on how, occasionally, he has been challenged by those who cling to the stereotype that faith and exploring the universe are incompatible—a stereotype refuted by the VATT, by Bolden, by Consolmagno, and by many other scientists and scientific endeavors over history.
The celebration weekend included a tour on September 30 of the VATT by benefactors and friends of the telescope, along with a visit to the VATT’s neighbor instrument at the Mount Graham International Observatory, the Large Binocular Telescope (one of the world’s largest, whose mirrors were built using technology first developed for the VATT). The tour was led by Fr. Chris Corbally, S.J., who served as the lead project scientist during the construction of the VATT, and Fr. Paul Gabor, S.J., Vice-Director of the Vatican Observatory in Tucson. Both Corbally and Gabor are involved in the continued maintenance and modernization of the VATT, including its ongoing robotization, which will be completed next year.
On Sunday, October 1, a Memorial Mass was held at Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Tucson for Fr. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, who died in February 2020. Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, Bishop Emeritus of Tucson, presided. Fr. Corbally offered the homily.
Fr. Coyne was the driving force behind the construction of the VATT. Until 1930, the Observatory’s telescope domes had been located on the walls of the Vatican itself. The growth of waste artificial lighting prompted a move to Castel Gandolfo. But by the middle of the century, even the skies there began to be excessively illuminated, prompting in 1980 a move to Arizona. A final event of the weekend was a public seminar at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. There, a dozen of the scientists and engineers who developed the VATT in the 1980s described the technical challenges and scientific achievements of this instrument.
Mt. Graham is a location far from major urban development, with a high elevation and clear desert skies. There the Vatican Observatory can continue to conduct astronomical research for decades to come.