The shuttle Discovery carries a piece of important missionary history into space, thanks to mission (and mission-minded) astronaut Patrick Forrester. The shuttle launch is set for Thursday morning, after being scrubbed repeatedly since Tuesday for weather and for mechanical issues involving a drain valve.
When Discovery does take off, on board and headed for the International Space Station is a battery box from the Piper AP-14 flown by Nate Saint, the missionary pilot murdered along with Jim Elliot and four others by Waodani Indians on a sandbar in Ecuador in 1956.
Forrester came up with the idea to commemorate the importance of mission aviation when he attended a concert where Steven Curtis Chapman retold the story of the missionaries' martyrdom. That led to Forrester reading Through Gates of Splendor, a memoir recounting the event written by Elliot's wife, Elisabeth.
"Bringing attention to and renewing interest in missions would be a great result of this experience," said Forrester, who was born in El Paso, Texas, the year after the martyrdoms. "My deepest intent is to honor Nate Saint, the Saint family, and all missionaries around the world."
Jim Elliot led the team that landed in the remote jungle area where the killings took place, and described himself and the four others as "a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody." After their deaths, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, Nate Saint's sister, moved into the village of the murderers, bringing forgiveness, reconciliation, and eventually gospel teaching. Today anthropologists estimate that 25 percent of the Waodani tribe members are Christians. (See "Five-man legacy," WORLD's coverage of the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom)
Forrester said he has participated in short-term mission trips in Uganda, Canada, Puerto Rico, and South Africa. He will be making his third shuttle flight, and has logged more than 4,500 hours in more than 50 different aircraft in a 16-year career with NASA and over 26 years as an Army aviator. After his NASA career is over, he said, "Always in the back of my mind is going into the mission field in some way." Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) provided Forrester the part from Saint's plane, which is on display at its headquarters in Nampa, Idaho. Forrester then sought approval from NASA, where it had to conform to strict size and weight restrictions.
NASA says the shuttle Discovery's mission marks the start of the international space station's transition from a construction site to a full-fledged orbital lab. On board are new racks for the space station designed for experiments in fluid physics, materials science, and a lab freezer for biological samples. Discovery is scheduled to return with experiments that have been mounted on the space station's exterior for over a year. Only six more flights are scheduled before the shuttle program shuts down, tentatively set for September 2010. The program has come under increasing scrutiny in Congress and elsewhere for its cost relative to its scientific gain.