Visiting astronaut Chris Hadfield
Not only has Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield experienced a sense of the world’s ultimate beauty in previous space missions, in his next adventure, he will go where no Canadian has gone before – into the commander’s chair of the International Space Station.
Chris Hadfield made history when he was sent to space 15 years ago.
He was the first Canadian mission specialist, the first Canadian to operate the homegrown Canadarm in orbit and the only Canadian to ever board the Russian space station, Mir, as one of five crew members on NASA's space shuttle, Atlantis.
Hadfield had been dreaming of making that flight above Earth since he was nine years old and watched, on July 20, 1969, as Apollo 11 landed on the moon and American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on its surface. So, as Hadfield got older, everything he did – from joining the Canadian Air Force in 1978 and becoming a fighter jet pilot (he can fly over 70 different types of aircraft and retired, in 2003, at the rank of colonel), to going to university to obtain a bachelor's degree with honours in mechanical engineering from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. in 1982, and a Master of Science in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee 10 years later – served as preparation for his ultimate goal.
"That some day Canada might have an astronaut and maybe I could be that guy," explained Hadfield recently as he prepared for his next and most important assignment in his 18-year career as an astronaut. On Nov. 30, 2012, he will make his third space flight and become the first Canadian to launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket destined for the International Space Station (ISS), which is expected to remain in position as Earth's research-centre-in-orbit for at least another 15 years.
Once at the ISS, Hadfield will spend four months as a flight engineer, conducting scientific experiments and technology demonstrations, and possibly walking out into space to work around the station on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), his employer. He's already performed two spacewalks – during his second time in space as a mission specialist in April 2001 on the crew of NASA's space shuttle, Endeavour.
The Sarnia, Ont. native, now 51, will then make it into the history books again when in March 2013, he will become the first Canadian commander of the ISS. He will spend six months in space that trip before returning to Earth, aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, landing in Kazakhstan about late May 2013.
Bob Thirsk, the first Canadian astronaut to spend six months aboard the ISS last year, says that his successor in space is up to the task ahead.
"Chris is an astronaut's astronaut," says 57-year-old Thirsk, a family physician and mechanical engineer.
"We usually think of three attributes astronauts need to be regarded as good. They need to have comprehensive knowledge of spacecraft systems. Chris knows every system on the station inside out.
"They need to have skills unique to our profession in robotics, such as the Canadarm, EVA [extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalking], and in-flight maintenance and repairing equipment that has failed – and he's regarded as one of the best.”
He says that "being Canadian also is helpful" since the stereotypical Canuck is considered to be polite, diplomatic and culturally sensitive.
"If you're a talented, smart, motivated person, you can eventually learn knowledge and skills that you need. But if you have some personality flaws, it's really hard to train that out of you. And when you're cooped up with crew mates for six months and there are conflicts, you need to be able to quickly resolve them."
Hadfield is exhilarated in knowing that he will soon return to space.
"For me, and I think for all Canadian astronauts, it's still a very rare experience and has been better than what I dreamed it would be. It's intoxicatingly fascinating – and so brief."
While his first mission to space lasted less than 10 days, Hadfield experienced travel aboard NASA's space shuttle – "the most complicated flying vehicle ever built," he points out – and, for the first time, docked it with a space station, in this case the Mir.
"We had to invent the whole thing," says Hadfield, who also recalls vividly what he saw when he looked out Atlantis's windows. "The world was roaring by at eight kilometres a second. We crossed Canada in 10 minutes, and went around the world in 90 minutes when it's never dark for more than 40 minutes at a time."
But when it was twilight, he remembers the crew shut the lights off in the space shuttle and through its portals saw "the most perfect, crystal-clear northern skies where, with no atmosphere, stars don't twinkle and you see the white smear of the Milky Way and the absolutely profound jet blackness of the universe that goes on forever.
"And the visual onslaught of the world is something you're unprepared for – just the stupefying beauty of it. It's like the most gorgeous sunset or the most beautiful piece of music – or person – where your jaw sort of drops. You just wanna grab someone and say, 'Look at that.' It was like that all of the time."
Hadfield, who has lived with his family in Houston and has been attached to the Johnson Space Center there for the past 18 years (he also has a cottage near Sarnia), will spend two-and-a-half years training for his next mission mainly in Houston and at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia (he speaks Russian fluently), as well as in Japan, Germany, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Montreal.
Hadfield has regularly honed his skills and learned to live in isolated environments since he was selected in June 1992 as one of four new Canadian astronauts from among 5,330 applicants. Last year, he spent two weeks as commander of a NASA undersea mission that used the ocean floor to simulate exploration missions to the surface of asteroids, moons and Mars.
But space missions also involve a lot of scientific experiments, and there were will be plenty of those in four huge zero-gravity laboratories during his upcoming assignment on the ISS.
As long as a Canadian football field, the ISS has as much living space as a five-bedroom house. That's plenty of room for six people, especially when there's no gravity and all three dimensions can be occupied. As Hadfield points out, "every corner is a whole new space."
Hadfield says the job can be physically demanding – especially when spacewalks are involved. He describes the spacesuit worn as a "one-person spaceship." Weighing over 100 kilograms and 16 layers thick, it forms a metal, fibreglass and heavy cloth balloon around the body. With all of that weight so close to the skin, any pressure on the suit can draw blood, Hadfield says.
Even with all of the prep work, "things go awry all of the time," he says.
"There's no way to properly test stuff in gravity. So the vast majority of what you train for is things going wrong and failing." For instance, when Atlantis was preparing to dock with Mir in 1995, it was within 20 metres of Mir when its sensors disagreed over the distance by 10 metres. With hearts in throats, Hadfield and his four fellow astronauts had to rely on visual cues – and the "depth of experience" – to safely dock.
"It was based on the worst-case backup that we trained for."
The ISS has proven that humans can colonize space; but whether we can live there permanently is determined by technology.
"If we knew that a rock from space was going to cause havoc with humanity or if the Earth became uninhabitable, what's going to happen is that we're going to invent simpler ways to get up there," says Hadfield. "When we invent better rockets than the big behemoths that we use right now, and space travel becomes cheaper, simpler and safer … of course we will go further. It's just a matter of human invention."
As for taking the next step – getting to Mars one day, even in his lifetime – Hadfield says he would, not surprisingly, "relish the opportunity."
The Hadfield file
• Married to Helene, nee Walter, a professional chef in Houston 18 months his junior, with whom he has three children: Kyle, 27, a professional poker player in China; Evan, 25, runs a tour company and is studying German in Germany where he lives with his wife, Kata; and Kristin, 24, a doctoral student in psychology at Trinity College Dublin.
• Plays guitar and is a member of two Houston-based bands: the all-astronaut rock group, MaxQ (bass and lead vocals), and Bandella (vocals and guitar), a “world acoustic music” band he formed with four friends. Hadfield also performed (he sang harmony) on Taking Care of Business with Randy Bachman on now-Conservative Senator Pamela Wallin's live CBC Newsworld television show, which she hosted from 1995 to 1999.
• His trademark mustache, which he has had since the age of 17, has only come off once, when Kyle was eight years old. "My wife was aghast," Hadfield says of the woman he first met when he was 16 and she was 14. "It struck her that I looked like our eight-year-old son, so she said, 'Don't shave that off again.' So the mustache stays."
• While in space, Hadfield and his crewmates won't have access to fridges or microwave ovens, so they will dine on "camping food, where all you have access to are boiling and cold water." Still, the prepared food isn't all that bad and will include barbecued chicken. The menu repeats every 16 days.
• On God, Hadfield says that while he prefers to keep his beliefs to himself, issues of faith are discussed at great length on board space shuttles and stations, and within the astronaut corps.
"We are in the position of looking at the world as an extremely rare, precious jewel in the middle of a lot of apparent emptiness. How can you not look at that and wonder how did that get there? Was it random chance or part of some design?
"Every religion helps you answer those questions, and I don't know any astronaut that doesn't have a core belief of some sort that gave them the strength to pursue the life they pursued.
"But telling people what got me there was a particular set of beliefs diminishes the overall purpose. I'm extremely inclusionary in my philosophies, and I despair sometimes at the things we do in the name of belief."