Hadfield Prepares for Space | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Hadfield Prepares for Space

As a boy growing up on his father's farm just west of Toronto, nine-year-old Chris Hadfield was so spellbound by Neil Armstrong's historic moon walk on July 20, 1969, that he promptly decided to become an astronaut himself.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 20, 1995

Hadfield Prepares for Space

As a boy growing up on his father's farm just west of Toronto, nine-year-old Chris Hadfield was so spellbound by Neil Armstrong's historic moon walk on July 20, 1969, that he promptly decided to become an astronaut himself. Hadfield pursued his goal single-mindedly, making all the right career moves: graduating from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., in 1982; winning the title of U.S. Navy Test Pilot of the Year in 1992 and, that same year, scoring a place in the Canadian Astronaut Program. Since then, tough training schedules in Canada and with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Houston have made for a gruelling existence - or one that would be gruelling, says Hadfield, "if it weren't so much fun. It's been the busiest time of my life, but it's just fascinating." At week's end, as he waited for the go-ahead for a launch delayed from Saturday by weather problems, Hadfield was on the verge of heading into Earth orbit aboard the spaceship Atlantis - and becoming the first Canadian to be a part of a shuttle flight crew, as opposed to a scientific specialist. "For a Canadian kid," said Hadfield, "this was just an impossible dream."

Beyond its Canadian content, the shuttle flight was of special interest for other reasons: Atlantis was scheduled to link up with the Russian space station Mir for the second time in four months. The five-member shuttle crew planned to take fresh food and water to the three men aboard Mir, as well as new solar panels and other equipment for the venerable Russian spacecraft, which has been orbiting Earth since 1986. But Atlantis's flight was no mere goodwill visit. Like last July's rendezvous between Atlantis and Mir, the latest linkup is part of a planned series of joint space ventures setting the stage for the start of construction, in 1997, of the international space research station.

Still, the Atlantis odyssey was expected to have its lighter moments. After docking with the Russian spacecraft, the NASA crew planned to invite their counterparts from Mir for a dinner featuring freeze-dried shrimp, steak and ice cream. Hadfield, who spent the past year studying Russian to prepare for the mission ("peredaite pozhluista krevetki" is "please pass the shrimp"), told Maclean's that "at my insistence, we're also taking along some maple sugar candy from Canada." As well, Hadfield planned to bring an unusual gift for the Mir crew members - a lightweight electric guitar to replace the aged and battered acoustic instrument aboard Mir. Hadfield, a self-taught guitarist, said he hoped to play a few tunes with Thomas Reiter, a German and classical guitarist, who has been working aboard Mir for more than two months.

The fourth Canadian to go into space, Hadfield is the first to be trained as a NASA mission specialist, a title that makes him a full member of the shuttle crew. The earlier Canadian astronauts - Marc Garneau (who went into space in 1984) and Roberta Bondar and Steve MacLean (both in 1992) - were payload specialists, whose main function aboard the shuttle was to carry out scientific experiments. Hadfield, on the other hand, faced a hectic round of duties related to the actual flight, such as monitoring flight data and shuttle performance.

On the third day, with Atlantis still 24 hours away from its rendezvous with the Russians, Hadfield was to help assemble the hardware needed for the Atlantis-Mir linkup. The main item involved a Russian-made, 17-foot-long tunnel, or docking module, to enable astronauts and cosmonauts to move between the two spaceships. Carried into space aboard Atlantis, the module will eventually become a permanent fixture on Mir. In a complicated, 1½-hour operation, Hadfield was scheduled to use the Canadian-built remote manipulator arm, or Canadarm, to lift the module out of Atlantis's cargo bay and position one end of it inches above an entrance to the shuttle's interior. With the module in place, Atlantis's commander, Col. Ken Cameron, would use the shuttle's jets to prod the spaceship into the module and lock them together. While manoeuvring the docking module into position, Hadfield was to test the Canadian-made Advanced Space Vision System (ASVS), a sophisticated device designed to provide precise information about the location of objects in space. Developed by scientists at Canada's National Research Council, the ASVS works by aiming video cameras at target dots located on such objects as the docking module. Performing up to 1,800 calculations a minute, the ASVS computer processes the visual information and churns out data on the location of the object, as well as computer-generated images that can be turned to show the object from any angle. Canadian officials hope that eventually NASA will buy the system - and hardware manufactured by Neptec Design Group of Kanata, Ont. - for its shuttle fleet. But during Atlantis's flight, the ASVS was to be used strictly on a test basis. "There are people at NASA who are skeptical about this system," says Michael McKay, a former member of the Canadian Astronaut Program who now serves as a technical expert with the Canadian Space Agency. "So there's a fair amount of pressure on us during this mission to show that it really does work."

With the docking module locked in place aboard Atlantis, the stage would be set for perhaps the most dramatic moments of the space flight - the tricky task of docking with Mir, scheduled for day four of the mission. Aided by television cameras and laser-operated range-finding equipment, Cameron was to guide the shuttle to a distance of 30 feet from the Russian ship, then nudge the shuttle forward at a speed of about one inch per second until the docking module makes contact with docking rings on Mir. At that point, Cameron would use a blast of Atlantis's jets to lock the two spaceships together. "It's a delicate manoeuvre," said MacLean, the former shuttle payload specialist who now is director general of the Canadian Astronaut Program. "You've got two 100-ton vehicles moving 25,000 km an hour, and you're trying to bring them together." During the docking, Hadfield's duties include operating a range finder out of a shuttle window, while playing a supervisory role in making sure that events unfold on schedule. "Everything on this mission is highly choreographed," said MacLean. "And Chris makes sure everybody's on cue."

Hadfield's high-flying and often dangerous missions impress the outside world more than they do members of his immediate family - his wife Helene and the couple's three school-age children. As the countdown got under way for the shuttle flight, Helene, Evan and Kristin flew to Cape Canaveral from Houston, where the family has lived since 1992. At the Kennedy Space Center, they were joined by Kyle, a student at Ontario's upscale Lakefield College. According to Hadfield, the children "do not get very excited about what I do for a living. They ask the same kinds of questions that everybody asks: What am I going to be doing up there? Am I going to get blown up? Do the toilets work?" The Toronto-born Helene, who works as a systems analyst for a Houston chemical firm, told Maclean's that "when Chris was a test pilot, there were times when he would tell me, 'I came within about half a second of dying today.' I think what he's doing now is a lot safer." Safer, and a dream come true.

Maclean's November 20, 1995