It takes years of training to get ready to go into space. But for Canada's newest astronaut, it has finally come down to this. Shortly after 9 a.m. last Tuesday, Dave Williams and his six fellow crew members are strapped into their seats aboard the space shuttle Columbia, facing skyward on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The hatch is sealed at 9:30, and a simulated 90-minute countdown begins. It is the dress rehearsal for the start of their mission, the dry run before a booster rocket blasts them and Columbia into orbit next week. It is, Williams says in his quiet, understated way, "a really big reality check."
Not many people know what they will be doing at a precise moment months in the future. But Williams has known for at least that long where he will be at 2:19 p.m. on April 16. That is when Columbia is scheduled to lift off for real, taking Williams and the other crew members aboard the 90th shuttle mission into space. Within minutes, according to plan, they will be 270 kilometres up, orbiting the Earth at 28,000 km/h - or once every 90 minutes. They will circle the globe for 16 days, performing 26 experiments as part of the Neurolab mission, designed to study the effects of zero gravity on the nervous systems of humans and animals. Scientists plan to take a closer look at how people adapt to life in space and the problems they encounter back on Earth. Along the way, they hope to gain more insight into problems faced by older people, whose difficulties with such things as balance and sleep are remarkably similar to those experienced by astronauts after a prolonged period of weightlessness. Neurolab, says Williams, will explore "the last two frontiers - outer space and inner space."
Williams will be the seventh Canadian in space, following in the footsteps of such pioneers as Marc Garneau and Roberta Bondar. And like the others, he has a CV that makes mere mortals feel distinctly inadequate. He is a doctor, a specialist in emergency medicine with experience in three cities, and he has a daunting list of other accomplishments: pilot, scuba diver, sailor, canoeist, skier. Now, at 43, his title is mission specialist and he is a career astronaut with NASA.
As he tells the story, relaxing at his home in suburban Houston, he has been fascinated with space ever since he was a kid growing up in the 1960s in Pointe Claire, Que. Like millions of others, he watched from afar the exploits of the early astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. He collected space cards the way other boys snapped up baseball cards, but it looked like an impossible dream: "It seemed like all the flying was being done by Americans and Russians. There didn't seem to be any way for a Canadian kid to get involved."
Williams went for the next best thing, taking up scuba diving as a teenager. He worked as a lifeguard to put himself through science and medicine at McGill University, and later served as an emergency physician in Toronto and Kitchener. But in January, 1992, the space bug bit again: the Canadian Space Agency was recruiting its second contingent of astronauts, and Williams applied with the blessing of his wife, Cathy Fraser, a pilot with Air Canada. There were just four openings - and 5,330 applicants. Against the odds, Williams landed one of them. The CSA gave him broad training in everything from Russian to geology and astronomy. Then, in 1995, the agency put his name forward to train as a mission specialist with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In the space business, that's a step into the major leagues, and he and Fraser, 36, did not hesitate: they moved to Texas along with their son, Evan, now 3. A daughter, Olivia, arrived last September,
Since January, Fraser has been back at her job flying Airbus A-320 passenger jets out of Toronto for Air Canada, where, after 10 years, she holds the rank of first officer. Living in Houston, she says casually, just means "a longer commute to work." The couple makes combining two demanding careers and two young children sound easy, but it hasn't all been smooth. When they moved to Texas, one thing they had to consider was whether Evan, who was born with Down's syndrome, could get the kind of special attention he had been receiving in Montreal. A group called the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped provided Evan with home therapy once a week, and he gets similar support from the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.
Evan's disability does not seem to faze Williams and Fraser. At home, he races around like any little boy, dashing upstairs to play games on the family computer. "The approach that Cathy and I have is to try and help Evan achieve the maximum he's capable of," says Williams. "We don't put any limitations on him. We don't say because he has Down's syndrome, he can't do this. A lot of people tend to put limitations on themselves, when they're probably capable of doing things they may not think they can do." They are now the poster family for the West Island Association that helped Evan in Montreal.
Sometimes reticent when talking about himself, Williams comes alive when asked to describe the science that he and his fellow astronauts will perform aboard Neurolab. Much of it may help doctors get a better understanding of problems affecting the elderly. As people age, they typically have more trouble sleeping, lose their balance and become disoriented more easily, and suffer from loss of muscle tone and bone density - all conditions that affect astronauts returning from prolonged periods in what scientists call "microgravity." The connection between older people and space travellers was underlined in January when John Glenn - pioneering astronaut, U.S. senator and senior citizen - announced that he will return to space in October as a crew member aboard the 95th shuttle mission. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, back in 1962. When he flies again he will be 77 - by far the oldest person to venture into space.
Williams and his colleagues will spend part of their time studying a condition known as orthostatic intolerance - a disorder common among older people whose cardiovascular systems do not provide enough blood to the brain when they stand up quickly. They can become faint and fall, as do many astronauts after they return to Earth. To investigate the problem, the Columbia crew members will strap each other into lower-body pressure suits that simulate gravity. Then they will insert needles into a nerve just below their knees to measure the signals from the brain to blood vessels, and use high-frequency sound waves to monitor blood flow to their brains. "You've got electrodes and wires all over your body and you're listening to the swoosh-swoosh of the blood flowing around your brain," says Williams. "It's quite an amazing experience."
The mission's experiments that have the most Canadian content involve hand-eye co-ordination in space. On Earth, people use gravity as a major way to orient themselves, to tell up from down. In space, they must rely more on visual clues. The Neurolab crew will use a device developed in Toronto to test how they adapt. Called a Visuo-Motor Co-ordination Facility, it resembles a computerized box connected to a specially designed glove that Williams will point at specific moving targets. Back on Earth, scientists will monitor how accurately he follows a target while being able to see his hand, and compare that to how he performs when a shield blocks his view of the glove. "When crews get into space they slow down a lot, and it's not clear why that is," says Barry Fowler, an experimental psychologist at York University in Toronto who helped to design the test. "We want to see if they can recalibrate their systems in space to adapt to zero gravity."
Williams will also use a virtual reality helmet to examine the interplay among vision, balance and gravity to understand how people orient themselves in space. And in another set of experiments, the astronauts will see how rats, mice, crickets, snails and two species of fish react to microgravity. The rats will go up in Neurolab when they are just a few days old, at a time when they are entering a crucial "window" during which they would normally be learning to walk on Earth. The astronauts will see how well they can walk without the stimulus of gravity; back on Earth, scientists will see how they re-adapt to walking on land. If they can relearn, says Williams, "then somehow in the nervous system there's an ability to respond to the environment."
Aside from its earthly benefits, the work of Neurolab is largely aimed at understanding how humans can live in space for expanding periods of time, eventually perhaps travelling to other planets. The first module for an international space station goes into orbit in June, and astronauts will be living aboard for long periods starting in 2002. The next obvious destination is Mars - a two-year journey that is at least a generation away. "I'm probably too old for it," says Williams. "But it'd be great to have a seven- or eight-year-old Canadian looking to fly to another planet." Unlikely? Not if the remarkable career of a kid from Pointe Claire is any guide.
Maclean's April 13, 1998