HUTCHINSON — A Topeka priest grimaced as he thought about where he could have been a few decades ago.
The Rev. Shawn Tunink found that people contemplated sending a priest into space with the Mercury 7 program after reading the book "Rocket Men" by Craig Nelson.
A quote in the book said, "We thought, at first, we should look amongst the priests," said Tunink, associate pastor at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Topeka.
The priest would have had to be capable in math and science, be able to fly a plane and know geology and medicine.
A former software engineer, Tunink can say he excels at math and science. He can fly a plane and owns a Piper Cherokee 180. He knows geology. He could work on learning about medicine.
Tunink, however, was born a few decades too late.
"If I would have lived during the '60s, I could have been one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts," Tunink said. "I think NASA should return to this wisdom to put a priest in space. I could be the first priest on the moon."
Instead, Tunink settles for flying his small plane at an altitude of about 10,000 feet to Hutchinson.
"It's not going to go into orbit any time soon," he said.
His plane might not, but his thoughts go into space as he sits down with a cup of coffee and learns a few lessons about the space program.
Almost every month, Tunink attends Coffee at the Cosmo, put on by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center.
It's a program that started out with eight people and has grown to nearly 80. Artifacts that aren't usually shown to the public are brought out and attendees get a behind-the-scenes look at what the Cosmosphere has.
His friend, the Rev. Chris Rossman, a pastor at St. Dominic in Holton and St. Francis in Mayetta, joined him Thursday for the second time.
"I love it," Rossman said. "We can fly down and get here in time for both coffee and doughnuts."
Chris Orwoll, CEO and president of the Cosmosphere, said Coffee at the Cosmo expands by word of mouth. While he's delighted people would fly to it, he's not surprised that people come from miles away.
"It is surprising that anybody would fly in to hear somebody like me speak," Orwoll said. "But it's really such an interesting program and really has caught the imagination of a lot of folks that it's not surprising that people are coming from Wichita and from Salina and other places to come and see this program."
After Coffee at the Cosmo, Tunink spends as much time as he can at the Cosmosphere's museum. He reads every bit of text and watches all the videos. It takes him and Rossman almost all day to complete a room.
Tunink has always been impressed with the space program. He is amazed how people have been able to think outside the box to get to space.
"It takes humans with a God-inspired gift to look up and say, 'That rock that's up there, let's go there,' " he said.
It doesn't hurt that many of the astronauts are religious. Buzz Aldrin took bread and wine to the moon and had communion during a radio blackout.
It also doesn't hurt that most of the astronauts are Eagle Scouts, just like Tunink.
"I'm proud of our Scouts that are astronauts," he said.
Eventually, he will go beyond the Cosmosphere. It might take time, though. He makes sure he reads every story in the museum.
When he ventures out, he wants to visit places like the Kansas Underground Salt Museum.
"There's so much to do at the Cosmosphere that I have maybe a year or so of Thursdays, then I'll have time for the salt mine," he said.