To say that retired Army Col. Jeffrey Williams has been on top of the world is no cliché.
The astronaut and Wisconsin native has orbited the “Blue Planet” about 20 times while tethered to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS), some 250 miles above Earth’s surface, in his oxygen-infused, pressurized spacesuit.
During his 23-year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Williams has conducted five spacewalks, totaling more than 30 hours suspended in space outside the ISS. Inside the Space Station, he’s orbited Earth another 7,000 times while conducting scientific experiments about life in a weightless environment.
“There wasn’t a day up there where I wasn’t in a moment looking out the window and worshiping God for the awe and wonder evoked just by seeing the beauty of the Earth,” says Williams, whose last spaceflight mission included a six-month stay on the ISS in 2016.
The ISS orbits Earth every 90 minutes, making Williams and his five-member crew privy to 16 different sunrises and sunsets across the globe every 24 hours. Factor the ever-changing longitude and latitude locations, varying weather patterns and oceanic reflections, and Williams never saw the same view twice.
From majestic cloud formations; vast ocean expanse and diverse terrain; spectacular lightning storms stretching for thousands of miles; amazing light displays of the aurora over the north and south poles; and swirling hurricanes, Williams says he understands better the psalmist’s humble description of himself in light of “the work of [His] fingers,” in Psalm 8:3-4.
“I never tired of that,” says Williams, whose 534 days in space is the second-longest tenure for an American astronaut. “I was always after the next unique shot to capture in photography.”
More than 450,000 times Williams has photographed Earth from space, including shots of California’s Central Valley, Iran’s Straits of Hormuz and Great Salt Desert, Alaska’s Denali mountain range, glaciers in South America, coral reefs in the Bahamas, volcanic eruptions on the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Japan, and the Colorado River’s sweep of the Grand Canyon—just to name a few.
For someone whose vantage point of the world is from outer space, Williams says, ironically, one needs to look no further than the Old Testament Book of Job—divinely and prophetically written centuries before the launch of space exploration—to appreciate God’s handiwork as Creator.
In his book, “The Work of His Hands—A View of God’s Creation from Space,” Williams writes: “Job says God ‘hangs the earth on nothing’ (26:7). Seeing the entire planet from outside punctuated Job’s witness with indescribable significance. Job’s conclusion that all of creation is but ‘outskirts of his ways’ (26:14) was especially humbling and only increased my wonder and awe of the Creator.”
But Williams says that neither his unique view of God’s creation from the heavenlies or from the depths of the ocean floor—where he commanded a nine-day coral reef expedition off the Florida coast of Key Largo—encompasses the substance of his faith.
“My relationship with God does not hinge on my looking at Earth from orbit and experiencing that ‘small whisper’ (see Job 26:14), but a shout—the shout of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in His work on the cross as revealed in the supernatural revelation of the Bible,” Williams writes in his book, which includes hundreds of photos from space. “So, my closeness to God in relationship with Him is through faith in the person and work of Christ.”
Yet knowing God as Redeemer through Christ’s atoning work on the cross has been accentuated by a greater appreciation from his spaceflight revelations of God’s attributes as Creator, Sustainer and Provider.
For example, Williams points to the sustaining order and precise provision of God’s creation that allowed him and two colleagues to travel at a speed four times the force of gravity in a small Russian Soyuz rocket capsule—launched from a remote area in Kazakhstan—and fly for nearly 48 hours through space before successfully docking onto the ISS while it travels at an orbital speed of 17,500 miles per hour.
“The intricacy of the order of God’s design in creation that supports mathematics and physics and rockets and, you know, everything that we do to extract from that mathematical order that He placed in His creation, is also a significant part of His provision,” Williams told Decision.
A member of the Army Aviation Hall of Fame and top graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1993, Williams logged about 3,100 hours in more than 50 different aircraft before retiring from active duty in 2007 with more than 27 years of military service.
Since his acceptance into NASA’s astronaut program in 1996, Williams has been involved in nearly every phase of construction of the ISS from its conceptual design in the late ’90s to his subsequent spaceflights in 2000, 2006 and 2010 when the Space Station was completed.
“I’ve marveled at the Lord’s timing and opportunity that He’s given me to be part of a pretty significant historical achievement and the state of technology that it took to do it,” Williams says. “And the international partnership is another amazing dimension. I’m just very honored and humbled to have encompassed all of that history.”
And as for the future, Williams, 61, enjoys managing NASA’s collaborative relationships with ISS partners in Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. He also serves on the board of directors of Pastor John MacArthur’s “Grace To You” radio ministry—the same ministry through which he was discipled after praying with his wife, Anna-Marie, to trust in Christ when he was 29.
“Jeff’s role as one of America’s most experienced and knowledgeable astronauts is of course profoundly useful to the nation,” MacArthur says. “But his work as a witness for Christ and a teacher of God’s Word is of eternal value to the church.”
Reflecting on the loss of the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle crew, including four of his astronaut classmates, during its fatal launch, as well as his own “handful of close calls” while sky diving, landing a helicopter with a failed engine and extinguishing a fire on board the ISS, Williams takes little for granted.
“The unique experience God has given me in spaceflight and then to put that in the context of a Christian faith and a teacher of the Bible for almost 30 years—that’s a huge responsibility,” he says.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Photo: Courtesy of NASA/JPL-CALTECH