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Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to record music in space

David Hadfield

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will be living aboard the International Space Station for the next six months, including a turn as commander. QMI AGENCY FILES

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will be living aboard the International Space Station for the next six months, including a turn as commander. QMI AGENCY FILES

Seeing a Soyuz launch is nothing like going to Cape Canaveral.

Up to a million people would watch a shuttle launch. They’d crowd the causeway until there was hardly room to stand.

And while you were waiting for the launch, you could “cruise the strip” at Cocoa Beach, swim in the surf, maybe do a little shopping.

But that’s all gone.

The shuttles are all in museums, and there is no replacement ready.

The Soyuz rocket is the only game in town, half a world away.

Baikonur, east of the Aral Sea in Kazahkstan, is a closed community. Getting there requires permission and a chartered jet from Moscow (which is not sponsored — the invited guests pay a very hefty fee).

It’s a small town that feels like an air force base, with monolithic 1950s-style communist-era apartment blocks. Almost nothing grows except in the flush of spring.

We saw a drab, dusty brown steppe-land, dead flat, swept by a searing cold wind, with half-wild camels wandering freely. (There is no Ron Jon Surf Shop in Baikonur.)

The launch pads are a half-hour drive away down empty two-lane roads.

For 70 years, the Russians believed in control, not freedom.

And while communism has vanished officially, old habits die hard.

Guests are allowed close access, but they must be invited.

The Soyuz rocket is nothing like the shuttle, either. It’s a slim, efficient tube, with a three-person capsule on top (like Apollo), and it’s no bigger than it needs to be.

The Russians get it moved into place, fueled-up and launched with a minimum of fuss. It has an elegant simplicity of design.

After watching them make it work — at temperatures down to minus-41 Celsius during rollout — my admiration for their program is immense.

It is the best spaceship on the planet right now. They aren’t big on hoopla, but they certainly do make it work.

The working language is Russian, and the alphabet is Cyrillic. That means some letters look the same, but have different sounds — ‘P’ is r, and ‘H’ is n, ‘C’ is s, and so on.

‘Restaurant’ appears ‘pectopah’, which is almost the same word when you sound it out, but visually disorienting.

The people are Mongols in appearance, but, of course, many Russians from farther west populate the town. This is the land that Ghengis Khan swept through early in his career. It still bears that mark.

It’s always cold in late December, the question is, how cold?

The wind continually blows and cuts through your clothes like a knife.

We all brought layers of heavy winter stuff — similar to what you’d wear ice-fishing if you didn’t have a hut.

During the rocket’s rollout from the assembly building to the pad (about four kilometres), the temperature was recorded as -41 C. Frost was forming on people’s eyelashes. Bare hands went numb in seconds as they fumbled with cameras. Batteries died. But we got to stand 10 feet from the railroad track as the rocket went by, and the excitement kept us warm.

I don’t know where else on the planet you could find a crew that could move a rocket onto a pad at such frigid temperatures and set it vertically in its launch cradle, ready for fuel. It went off without a hitch, in under two hours. Remarkable.

Chris speaks Russian very well. The writing was on the wall when he first went to NASA in 1992. It was obvious that the Russians were going to become partners. He started with a Russian tutor his first week. The manuals are in Russian, the checklists, radio comms with Star City Mission Control are solely in Russian.

Chris headed NASA’s office at Star City for two years after his second space flight. He was also director of space station operations for three years. Much of his job was communicating, and making sure the Russian and American organizations were on the same page.

He became fluent, and also became known and trusted by both communities. He says he thinks in Russian when working there. At the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) they notice he speaks French with a Russian accent!

We had to figure out what was happening on our own, somewhat, helped by the very capable folks from the CSA. Again, the Russians don’t go out of their way to massage tourists. There were about 40 Canadians on hand for last Wednesday’s launch. We were a small crowd, but noisy. Quite enthusiastic. The American contingent was small. The third crewman, Roman Romanenko, being the son of a famous cosmonaut, had some Russian media attention, but it was far less than you’d expect in Florida.

There were very few journalists. I suspect news budgets rarely stretch to allow trips to Kazahkstan. We had a National Film Board crew with us, and that was about it. All in all, a refreshing change from a shuttle launch.

The Soyuz spaceship is tiny. They have to sit there for two days getting to the station, and it’s about the size of the front seat of a Volkswagen. Once in orbit, they can unstrap and move around somewhat, but it’s a case of, “Tom, please move right, and Roman squeeze down so I can get by.” Claustrophobia isn’t an option. There is a miniscule chem-toilet, but they take two (count ’em, two) enemas before launch, hoping they can make it to the space station before needing to do anything major.

There is little boredom in space. Chris says he never tires of looking at the Earth. In the Cupola, an observation dome on the station, there is a 30-inch window, and the view is stupendous. They’re in low-earth orbit, only 400 kilometres, and the surface moves quickly underneath.

By comparison, geo-stationary communications satellites are at 35,000 kilometres.

But Chris will be tasked heavily. He’s a wonderful communicator — probably the best communicator in Canada at the moment, bar none — and I suspect he will be called upon often to interact with people in Canada, and everywhere else.

He is up there for six months, and will be in command for the second half. This is only the second time the Americans and Russians have ever let anyone who wasn’t American or Russian take command.

He was subjected to the most rigorous peer-review process that exists on Earth. This didn’t happen through upgrade points, and Canada is a tiny player financially. Chris is a known quantity. His competence has been proven over 20 years. The Soyuz is his fourth type of spaceship. They liked him. They picked him.

Chris will also record an album of his own music in space, which is the first time anyone has ever created a complete work of original art while off planet. This will occur during his private time in the evenings, and he will use the station guitar (a Canadian-made Larrivee, by happy coincidence) and a simple microphone onto his laptop to record. Then he will send this to a studio in Toronto for mixing and production.

He’ll miss his family, but they are all truly citizens of the planet. He has one son in China, another in Germany and a daughter in Ireland. They all communicate every day by means of various electronic media. They even have a family Skype channel.

For his six-month mission, he will continue the same pattern, a link-up or e-mail or Facebook every day. He can make a phone call whenever he wishes. He can’t hug them or his wife, but he will stay in close touch.

I know we were more worried than he was during launch. For a pilot like me, it’s always easier to fly a difficult aircraft personally than to watch a loved one do it.

In the last 30 seconds before launch, my heart was in my throat, like it always has been. Big rockets are violent machines.

But the Soyuz has a magnificent safety record, and this one went flawlessly.

Chris is where he is supposed to be now, in position to do what he does best. He will take command of the signature piece of technology of the planet Earth.

Godspeed, brother.

David Hadfield is a Barrie-area resident. His brother, Chris, is the first Canadian to be named commander of the International Space Station.


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