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Astronaut takes Christian missions history into orbit

HOUSTON (BP)–Astronaut Patrick Forrester, a specialist on the Discovery crew that is in orbit now, is carrying with him a piece of the battery box from martyred missionary pilot Nate Saint’s Piper PA-14 airplane.

Forrester, a deacon at University Baptist Church in Houston, has been interested in the work of Mission Aviation Fellowship and wrote to them to see if they had anything he could take on the flight, which launched Aug. 29.

“Sometimes the astronauts carry small pieces of something,” Forrester’s pastor, Robert Creech, said. “He thought he might get a patch or a certificate or something, and he was very excited when he found out it was a part of the airplane.”

Saint was among the five missionaries to Ecuador, including Jim Elliot, who were murdered on a sandbar in 1956 by a tribe of Waodani Indians. Forrester first learned about the story during a Steven Curtis Chapman concert.

“He told the story of the missionaries who had gone down and had lost their lives. That story just fascinated me, and through that I heard of the book ‘Through Gates of Splendor.’ That’s when I really first understood about MAF,” Forrester said, according to a news release from the missions organization.

This is 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 his first two missions, in 2001 and 2007, and this time he is supervising the spacewalks from inside the shuttle.

When the 13-day mission to the international space station is complete, Forrester will return the plane part to Mission Aviation Fellowship along with a certificate confirming its presence on Discovery’s flight. MAF plans to display the part and the certificate at its headquarters in Nampa, Idaho.

“Bringing attention to and renewing interest in missions would be a great result of this experience,” Forrester told MAF. “My deepest intent is to honor Nate Saint, the Saint family and all missionaries around the world.”

Founded in 1945, Mission Aviation Fellowship teams serve in 55 countries, transporting missionaries, medical personnel, medicines and relief supplies into remote areas. They also provide telecommunications services, such as satellite Internet access, high-frequency radios, e-mail and other wireless systems for missionaries.

Creech, who has known Forrester about 15 years, told Baptist Press the astronaut is a favorite Sunday School teacher among University Baptist’s high school students.

“He’s one of my heroes. He’s an incredible person,” Creech said. “He has a servant’s heart, and when we’ve gone to Africa he’s tried to conceal his identity. He doesn’t go around being an astronaut. He’s just Patrick.

“We worked with a pastors’ school there, providing some training, and Patrick was one of our small group leaders and got in and loved the pastors and continued to have connections with them later and helped along the way with their kids’ schooling and things like that. He’s got a great heart.”

Last year during a service marking the 50th anniversary of NASA at University Baptist, Forrester gave a six-minute testimony, relaying how he became interested in missions.

“It was August 2001, and I had just completed my second spacewalk on my first mission. And I looked back at earth, I took this picture as I was getting ready to come back in, and I thought to myself after all the effort and all the work it had taken to get there, ‘Is this all there is? Is this all that God has planned for my life?'” Forrester said.

When he returned home, his wife Diana urged him to speak with Creech, and soon he was headed to Uganda on his first mission trip. They spent a week with about 30 pastors from across Uganda, training them and developing relationships.

At the end of the week, the International Mission Board worker there asked Forrester to tell the pastors about his work with NASA. Forrester, trying to downplay that part of his life, said he would rather not. But the missionary kept asking, and Forrester complied.

The next day, he asked one of the pastors whether he slept well that night. The man, named Joseph, said he did not. Instead, he lay awake all night looking at the sky, pondering the photographs of earth from space that he had seen in Forrester’s presentation. Until then, Joseph had not known the earth was round, and he stayed awake marveling at the vastness of God.

During his testimony at University Baptist, Forrester quoted a David Crowder song with the line “My eyes are small but they have seen the beauty of enormous things.”

“I had seen that with my own eyes and yet I did not see the enormity of God the way that Joseph did just by looking at those pictures,” the astronaut recounted. “I thought, ‘Where else am I walking around day to day and missing the enormity of God just in what He has placed before me?'”

Forrester planned to return to Uganda the following summer, but launch delays prevented him from going on the trip. Instead he was in space the week the University Baptist group went to Africa.

Joseph had given Forrester a picture of his family standing in front of their tent on his visit to Uganda, and he took it into orbit with him on that mission. Forrester had a crewmate take a picture of him holding the photograph with the earth in the distance, and he e-mailed it to the IMB worker in Uganda. The missionary printed the picture and gave it to Joseph.

“A year ago this man did not know the earth was round, and he’s holding a picture of his family as it floats in space,” Forrester said.

God used the experience with Joseph to show Forrester that his accomplishments as an astronaut are tools for Kingdom purposes.

“God spoke very clearly to me that day and said, ‘I want you to use the things that I’ve given you, the person that I’ve made you. I’ll work through those. I don’t want you to look at gifts that I’ve given to other people, for you to want those,'” Forrester said.

Creech said Forrester and his wife, a neonatal nurse, are considering a transition to full-time missionary service.

“When I visualize what I might do after I end my career at NASA, always in the back of my mind is going into the mission field in some way,” Forrester was quoted as saying in Mission Aviation Fellowship news release. “If I could go tomorrow and be a pilot with an organization like MAF, I think that’s what I’d do.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.
To hear audio of Patrick Forrester’s testimony at University Baptist Church in Houston, go to http://www.ubcmedia.org/media/audio/PatFclip.mp3.

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  • Erin Roach