Space Force Chaplain

By Ross Engel

I always wanted to be an astronaut. My childhood bedroom was decorated with space memorabilia. As a teenager, I had a full size wall mural in my bedroom of the Space Shuttle Columbia orbiting the earth. I collected shuttle mission patches, built model rockets, and stared at the stars. I watched “The Right Stuff,” “Return of the Jedi,” and “Space Camp” every chance I got, and spent many a night dreaming about one day journeying into the great unknown. There was a reason why my Dad called me his little “space cadet.”

January 28, 1986 is emblazoned in my mind. Excitedly, I sat in my kindergarten classroom, my eyes fixated on a television screen. I would be seeing the Space Shuttle launch! I could hardly contain myself! I took my Challenger mission patch with me to school that day. The whole class was buzzing with expectation as we watched and joined in the final countdown.

“10. 9. 8. 7. 6. We have main engine start. 4. 3. 2. 1. And Liftoff! Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower!”

Overwhelmed with joy, my little hand clutched my Challenger mission patch as I smiled from ear to ear watching the Shuttle climb into the sky on a plume of fire and smoke. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, excitement would change to shock and disbelief as we watched the shuttle explode and disintegrate before our very eyes. It was a lot for my five-year-old brain to process.

In the midst of it all, I recall telling my teacher with tears in my eyes, that “I hope(d) that those astronauts knew Jesus and that their families had a pastor to pray with them.”

Despite this horrific tragedy, I still wanted to be an astronaut and later that afternoon I made a connection; I realized that if NASA could send a teacher into space, maybe one day they could send a pastor into space. He could preach a sermon from the Space Shuttle! One day maybe there would be a church on the Moon or even Mars. And maybe that pastor could be me! That day was perhaps the only time that I ever considered being a pastor, but not just any pastor, but a pastor in space! Five year-old me thought it was the perfect combination. I could be an Astronaut, exploring space, and pastor who got to tell people about Jesus (I could be a “Pastronaut”)! After all, even Astronauts would need a pastor with them, what if their missions caused them to miss church!

I didn’t give much thought to the pastoral ministry in the years that followed. I did keep on dreaming about flying and exploring space. I chased that dream well into my 20s, until the last door to me journeying into space finally slammed shut. I did still love Jesus and the events of my life lead me to consider the pastoral ministry. (I wrote about that journey here).

Well, suddenly it seems that the doors to my childhood dream aren’t quite as shut as I thought they might be! President Trump made an announcement this past March that caught my attention: “My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea. We may even have a Space Force.” Did you hear that? A Space Force! Look out, world, America might be heading back into space again. And when they go, maybe they’ll need pastors!

But why would any pastor sign up for such a ministry? Why risk the danger? It would be easy to quote the British explorer George Mallory, who died on Mount Everest, and just say, “Because it is there!” Or maybe even better yet, to quote President John F. Kennedy in his famous, We Choose to Go to the Moon speech and declare, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!”

Accepting challenges are all well and good, no doubt! I like to think of myself as one who doesn’t shirk away from challenges or hardships. Honorable and difficult actions require answerable courage! Even in the church! My Lutheran heritage is filled with courage and boldness!

In the infancy of the printing press, Martin Luther was fully engaged in its use; in the language of the people, he published thousands of pages of beautiful rich theology! Luther stood before princes and cardinals and declared the truth before those who sought to silence him. The first Lutherans to cross the Atlantic set sail looking for a new world to gather for worship and to preach the Gospel. Pastor C.F.W. Walther led the small band of Lutherans to establishing a seminary and national church body, centered on proclaiming justification by grace alone, even in the midst of an environment that was, and still is, hostile to such a message. On horseback, Lutheran circuit riding pastors took the Gospel across the desolate wasteland of frontier America, often armed with only a pistol, the Scriptures, and a Communion kit. The Lutheran Hour paved the way for the proclamation of the Gospel across the airwaves. Lutheran pastors served on the frontlines of every war as faithful Chaplains, ministering to those who serve. It was a Lutheran Chaplain who was sent to the gates of hell to minister to war criminals who committed crimes against humanity under Hitler’s iron fist (read about Pr. Henry Gerecke in Mission at Nuremberg). There are missionaries to Haiti, seminaries planted in Africa, and the proclamation of the Gospel in places like China, Russia, and the Middle East. And certainly not to be forgotten, each week, faithful pastors climb into pulpits of all shapes and sizes to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins, baptizing, absolving, and communing those entrusted to their care.

Even if it means risking difficulty or great personal risk, taking the Gospel out into the entire world is a challenge that the church and her pastors must be willing to accept. The mission to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them.. and teaching them” (Matthew 28:19-20) is a mission we mean to be a part of. It is a mission that we should lead the way! The Church has done this before and must continue to take part in this mission, proclaiming the Good News to all the world!

Therefore, we pastors and parishioners alike, let us go forth boldly with the message of forgiveness and salvation, ever trusting that God’s Word will accomplish His purposes. Embarking on this mission, we ask God’s blessing on this “most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure which man has ever embarked.” It truly is a mission blessed by and accomplished by God!

And so, if a Space Force ever does come to fruition, and they are taking Chaplain applications, you can bet mine will be on the top of that pile!

Space Force Chaplain Engel, reporting for duty!