Astronaut Chris Hadfield readies for mission of a lifetime

Hadfield will become the first Canadian to command the International Space Station
PHOTO DATE: 07-25-12 LOCATION: NBL - Pool Topside SUBJECT: Expedition 34 crew training during NBL operations. Photograph Kevin Ford and Chris Hadfield interacting, suiting up, being lowered into the water. PHOTOGRAPHER: BILL STAFFORD
Building the perfect spaceman
Bill Stafford/NASA

What’s Christmas like on the International Space Station? Not entirely different from here on Earth, says Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who blasts off on Dec. 19, and will become the first Canadian to command the ISS in March. “It’s not like we can get a big roast turkey or a smoked ham,” but he and the others will be dining on turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread, “and we might have peach ambrosia for dessert.” Hadfield, who’s famous for his guitar-playing skills, will lead a Christmas carol singalong on the ISS’s own Larivvée guitar (built in Vancouver). And they’ll be able to talk with family at home.

After years of gruelling preparation, Hadfield is spending this last week in quarantine at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, gearing up to go. “I just checked my countdown app on my iPad, and I have a little over a week until we launch,” he said over the phone on Monday night, around 10 p.m. Kazakhstan time, the excitement clear in his voice. “It’s a pretty amazing time.” Hadfield has a lot to look forward to, like all the scientific experiments he’ll be running on the ship—about 130 are planned for the time he’s up there, researching everything from how the human heart adapts to microgravity, to totally different topics like dark matter and dark energy—and the views of Earth he’ll see. Hadfield hopes to photograph Sarnia, Ont., where he was born, and other scenes of Canada and the world from space. The view, he says, is incredible. “It’s like a present unwrapping itself the whole time you look out the window,” but what he’s most looking forward is being weightless. “It’s magic. The ISS is huge,” about the size of a football field, “and you can fly from end to end.”

Hadfield and his crew, including Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and American Tom Marshburn, will face plenty of challenges, both physical and psychological. If astronauts didn’t exercise and take other precautions, being up in space for a few months would do a lot of damage to the body, maybe the equivalent of 50 years of aging. To fend of bone and muscle loss, they spend two hours every day working out. Psychological challenges can be “harder to predict,” he says. The hardest difficulty the crew could face would be the illness or death of a family member back home, like what happened to American astronaut Daniel Tani, whose mother died in a car crash in 2007 while he was aboard the ISS. “That would be difficult to deal with psychologically, for the whole crew,” says Hadfield, who was the support astronaut for Tani’s family on Earth during that mission. The crew has talked through all these scenarios, and feels prepared for what comes their way. After all, the astronauts themselves are human experiments while they’re in space, as researchers track how they adapt to extreme physical and psychological challenges. It’s crucial information if we ever send humans to Mars or beyond; NASA recently announced plans to put a Russian and American on the ISS for an entire year.

Hadfield is spending his last week on Earth relaxing, taking a few refresher courses, and contemplating the incredible task before him. (Two days before the launch, he’ll also get a haircut.) His family—including his wife and three adult children—will come visit, although “a lot of it will be behind glass, so I don’t catch a cold before I launch,” he says. “We’ll share a traditional family Christmas in a very unusual set of circumstances.” When he flies, he’ll be taking small mementoes with him, including his wife’s wedding ring. Hadfield recalls nights in the old farmhouse in southern Ontario where he grew up. “When [my brother and I] were supposed to be sleeping, we’d pull our knees up like a control panel, and fly imaginary space missions all around the universe. For me it’s surreal that in just over a week, I’m going to climb into a Russian spaceship,” and not so long after that, he’ll be the one commanding the International Space Station.

For an inside look at how Hadfield trained at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, read Kate Lunau’s story.