Belgian priest mathematician heads to space station –- in name only

Msgr. Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian mathematician who studied alongside leading scientists of the first half of the 20th century exploring the origins of the universe, is heading into space.

Well, at least his name is.

Technicians dressed in cleanroom suits to prevent contamination load cargo in ATV George Lemaitre. The spacecraft is set for launch the night of July 29-30 on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Courtesy European Space Agency)

Technicians dressed in cleanroom suits to prevent contamination load cargo in ATV Georges Lemaitre. The spacecraft is set for launch the night of July 29-30 on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Courtesy European Space Agency)

The European Space Agency has named the next supply mission to the International Space Station for the priest, who died in 1966 at 71.

Msgr. Lemaitre’s calculations suggested that the cosmos began as a super-dense “primeval atom” that underwent some type of reaction that initiated the expansion of the universe which continues today. His ideas were refined by other cosmologists, leading to the Big Bang theory on how the universe was born.

The mission is set for launch the night of July 29-30 from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Scheduled for an earlier launch, it is being delayed for five days to give technicians time to resolve a few glitches discovered during launch preparations.

Jean-Michel Desobeau, Arianespace quality deputy vice president , who is coordinating the mission with the ESA, told Catholic News Service the spacecraft will deliver dry cargo and research equipment to the space station. Six astronauts including two Americans, three Russians and a German, are aboard the station.

The resupply mission is the fifth — and last — coordinated by the ESA. The missions began in 2008 using the agency’s reliable automated transfer vehicle, or ATV.

ATV Lemaitre is the heaviest spacecraft to be launched by the ESA. It will stay docked with the ISS for up to six months before leaving filled with trash and eventually falling back to earth in a fiery ball over the South Pacific. Its engines are powerful enough to push the space station into higher orbit to offset the effects of earth’s gravity, Desobeau said.

Each of the ESA missions has been named for famous European scientists from the leading countries involved in the agency including Albert Einstein and Johannes Kepler (Germany), Edoardo Amaldi (Italy), Jules Verne (France), who may be better known for his science fiction writing than his work on the scientific front, and now Msgr. Lemaitre.

“We have a particular affection for Belgians in the European space program,” Desobeau said. “Belgium played a pivotal role as a small independent country, less prone to be blinded like France or Germany or Italy by industry interests. The Belgian political family played a very, very important role, like a moderator into the discussion. So having the fifth ATV carrying not only a scientist’s name, but a Belgian name makes the story quite complete.”

Although ATV Lemaitre is the ESA’s last resupply mission, the effort will continue with cooperative launches coordinated by world space agencies from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and private contractors.

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