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A conversation with Doug Wheelock

On June 15 Doug Wheelock strapped into a Russian Soyuz rocket at Baikonur, Russia, and blasted off for a rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station on June 17.  For six months, he is the Commander of the International Space Station (ISS), his home until his scheduled December return to earth. The mission is ISS Expedition 25.
Wheelock is a colonel in the U.S. Army. He also is an aerospace engineer and test pilot. As an Army aviator, he has served as a battalion operations officer and commander of an Air Calvalry Troop in the 9th U.S. Cavalry.
Among his many awards are the Meritorious Service Medal (1st Oak Leaf Cluster), Army Achievement Medal (2nd Oak Leaf Cluster), National Defense Service Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Master Aviator badge and Air Force Space and Missile badge.
He became a candidate astronaut at NASA’S Johnson Space Center in 1998. He previously flew to the International Space Station in 2001 and 2002 and has logged many hours floating in space on several space walks.
Wheelock’s connection to Oklahoma Christian University began in 2007 in Houston when he met Bobby and Kay Murcer. The former Yankees outfielder and Oklahoma church member was undergoing treatment in a Houston hospital for cancer, which claimed his life a year later. Wheelock, who grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., was a lifelong fan of the Yankees and his childhood idol, Bobby Murcer.
Through his friendship with Murcer, Wheelock learned about Oklahoma Christian University. In March the astronaut spoke at a donor appreciation dinner there. He shared his experiences in space and talked about his strong faith in God and Jesus Christ.  Wheelock is slated to speak to the Oklahoma Christian student body this fall from the ISS.
Wheelock is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Georgia Tech graduate school.
Have your experiences in space afforded spiritual lessons?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, as I look back on my time in space, the images and emotions that remain with me are deeply spiritual.
The months and years of preparation for a space mission are filled with mental, intellectual and physical lessons that shape a very unique individual experience. But I am convinced that it is impossible to prepare for the spiritual awakening that occurs when you see our planet suspended against the backdrop of the vast emptiness of deep space.
The spiritual lessons are numerous, and perhaps the most profound is the indescribable beauty and mystery of God’s creation. You see no borders, no barriers, no limitations, no conflict, no hate. It’s just this big blue planet, an explosion of color, raging with life, in an endless sea of darkness. Cares of the world and human struggles seem to fade away and give way to awe and pure majesty, from this vantage point.
We are merely the caretakers of a fragile world protected by a thin atmosphere and covered with the matchless grace of an almighty God.
What part does prayer play for you on a space mission?

Well, quite simply, prayer is perhaps that most important element in my Christian walk and in my relationship with God. It is the way that I let God know how awesome he is and what a masterpiece he has created. It is a personal way I can confess my shortcomings and ask him for his forgiveness and continued grace. It is the way that I can ask him for protection for my crew and for wisdom and guidance as their commander.  
On a space mission, there are so many things that are outside of your control, and countless things that can go wrong, in a world with very little margin for error. Those are precisely the reasons why I try to be continually in a prayerful mindset.
The times that I am most vulnerable are when things are going well and according to plan. It is in those quiet hours that I am most prone to begin patting myself on the back, as if these are things that I accomplished in my own power.
It is easy to be prayerful when a rocket is getting ready to light underneath you, or when you are engulfed in a fireball while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. It is way more difficult to be prayerful when everything is going smoothly according to plan, when things seem “routine,” when we as humans tend to be impressed with our accomplishments.
Scripture says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” How do your space experiences relate to that teaching?
That is one of my favorite passages, from the 19th Psalm.
I can just imagine David out in the fields, tending the sheep and looking up at the vastness of space and a sky filled with billions of stars. There is nothing left to say but, “Wow, how great thou art!”  
My experiences in space directly correlate with David’s reaction to the majesty of God’s creation. My human reaction is a combination of humility and tears. What an awesome God we serve! The heavens declare his glory! And, the sky displays his handiwork! Nothing can prepare you to adequately comprehend what your eyes see from space. It is indeed a masterpiece, the very same masterpiece that David described in Psalm 19. The two experiences are directly related.
As an engineer and scientist, how does the space experience affect you and your faith?
I love getting this question, especially from those searching for answers and truth — or those that are agnostic.
The question is usually posed as if science and the logic of engineering are mutually exclusive with a life of faith. My experience in space has done nothing but strengthen my faith in God and my belief in a divine creation.
In fact, I am convinced that it would require an unimaginable amount of faith to believe that all of this happened just by chance. I spent more than 20 hours outside of the Space Station on three space walks during my first mission, and the most profound sight is to view the Earth suspended in a vast, endless sea of emptiness.
To me, it would be absolutely impossible to have just happened. It looks more like brush strokes from the Master’s hand. It is quite surreal and profoundly breathtaking.
Do you take a Bible into space? What are your favorite passages?
Well, due to weight and volume restrictions, I am not able to carry a full-sized Bible into space, but I have it in electronic form, as well as access to study devotionals electronically.
There are so many passages that I have committed to memory, and others that have special meaning to me. But, if I had to pick a couple of favorites, these would be my top three:
Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Isaiah 55:12: “For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
God’s word has such power, and for me, my favorite passages of Scripture are those that focus on God’s promise of strength in times of weakness, restoration in times of brokenness and peace in times of turmoil and despair.
You said in a speech that “looking into the blackness of deep space is terrifying.” Please explain.
To this day, thinking of that sight still sends a shiver through me.
As with many of my most vivid visual memories, this one is more pronounced during a space walk, when the only thing between you and eternity is the thin visor of your helmet.
In space, the environment is a complete vacuum. There are no molecules and no atmosphere to distort or refract light or any visual image. So, the sphere of the Earth and the moon give a unique perception of depth to the solar system, and coupled with the varied brightness of the stars, you soon find yourself in a very three-dimensional, vast and seemingly endless sea of darkness.
Looking away from the Earth, the Space Station and the Space Shuttle and into the expanse of this darkness is indeed terrifying. There is no other environment that is more inhospitable, empty, void and less forgiving of mistakes than this. At this point, I distinctly remember my prayer being, “Lord, hold me close, and please don’t let go.”

Tell those of us who will never travel to space what touches you most deeply about the experience.
Of all the profound moments and awe-inspiring surprises that a journey to space affords, the most moving sight, and the one that touches me most deeply, is witnessing the indescribable beauty of our planet Earth.
The Earth is quite literally an explosion of color in an endless sea of darkness — a raging ball of life, suspended in the cold and lifeless grip of vast emptiness. The contrast is breathtaking.
I distinctly remember working during my first space walk and being so distracted by the colors of the Earth that I was anxious for “orbital sunset,” thinking that I could work my tasks without distraction.
Not so. The Earth at night is dancing with plumes of lightning and fingers of Mesozoic lightning stretching for hundreds of miles over the surface. Flashes of aurora race toward and encircle the North and South poles, a stunning light show that looks more like brush strokes in a priceless masterpiece.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of light as a meteorite burns through our atmosphere directly below me.  
This is the most profound moment; it is as if the Creator is still creating. The planet continues to rage, as “the Heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament displays his handiwork.”  

  • Feedback
    I have viewed these pictures w/music and each time I cried at the beauty. The Lord loves his people to give us such perfection and beauty. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
    St, Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral
    West Covina, California
    February, 9 2012

    A dear friend from Italy sent this to me. Just reading of this astronauts deep and abiding faith really lifts me up. His definition of the awesomeness of earth from space will stay with me. I am amazed that all cannot see the things He hath made or the majesty of His power. Thanks for giving me another reason to sing His praises. God Bless! Cherry
    Mrs. Cherry Richardson
    Central Gardens Baptist Church
    Port Arthur, Texas
    November, 27 2011

    A dear friend from Italy sent this to me. Just reading of this astronauts deep and abiding faith really lifts me up. His definition of the awesomeness of earth from space will stay with me. I am amazed that all cannot see the things He hath made or the majesty of His power. Thanks for giving me another reason to sing His praises. God Bless! Cherry
    Mrs. Cherry Richardson
    Central Gardens Baptist Church
    Port Arthur, Texas
    November, 27 2011

    What a fantastic experience. He was able to enjoy the creation as he has got so much faith in the Creator
    K. O..Oommen
    Hyderabad, India, Andhra Pradesh
    March, 22 2011

    This is an amazing testimony from a NASA astronaut, and its so inspires my faith all the more. I recently wrote a book on space with a Christian theme, so to read Cmdr Doug Wheelock express his love for God, his dependence on God as an astronaut, and his awe at God’s awesome power in the Universe is incredibly inspiring. So thankyou Christian Chronicle for sharing his testimony with the world; worth passing on to inspire others! James W., Sydney, Australia
    James Waterhosue
    Hillsong Church
    Sydney, New South Wales
    January, 10 2011

    What a wonderful and bold statement of faith from one so highly educated. This is quite refreshing at a time when even some in the church think God-guided evolution is the “intelligent” explanation for creation.
    To Ellen I would say that I think a man who is in such awe and fear of God’s creation and who prays and reads the Scripture like he does has successfully found the true way of salvation.
    Jayne Warren
    Holmes Road Church of Christ/Memphs
    Marion, AR
    July, 27 2010

    Is Doug Wheelock a Christian? Where does he attend church? These seem like important details that I don’t read in this story?
    Altamesa Church of Christ
    Fort Worth, TX
    July, 15 2010

Filed under: Dialogue

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