Inside NASA with Chris Hadfield

A tour of the elite training facility that turns mortals into astronauts

Building the perfect spaceman

Bill Stafford/NASA

Building the perfect spaceman
Bill Stafford/NASA

From the outside, Building 9 at the NASA Johnson Space Center, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Houston, is nondescript. Inside, it’s like Willy Wonka’s factory, if Willy were a rocket scientist. The hangar-like facility is filled with robots, moon buggies and spaceship mock-ups. Robonaut, a humanoid robot with a golden head, sits next to Spidernaut, a robot prototype with eight arched legs. There’s an Orion capsule, and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But what dominates the vast room is a full-size mock-up of the International Space Station (ISS), an Earth-orbiting spaceship built by 15 countries, including Canada.

One recent Monday morning, astronaut trainer Gwenn Sandoz waited there for Chris Hadfield, who will blast off from Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz in December, and soon after will become the first Canadian to take command of the ISS. Canada has invested heavily in the station, which has been inhabited by a rotating crew since 2000, but we only get to send so many astronauts there. For 20 years, Hadfield has worked tirelessly to prove himself in an astronaut corps dominated by the U.S. and Russia. Canada has paid its dues by contributing the robotics systems that built and maintain the ISS, finally earning a spot for one of its own at the controls of what Hadfield calls “the world’s spaceship.”

Sandoz knew her time with Hadfield was limited; this was his last week of training in Houston before the launch. At 10:15 a.m., right on time, he breezed in wearing a neatly tucked-in polo shirt—the unofficial uniform at Johnson—with the crew patch of Expedition 35, which portrays a moonlit view of Earth from the ISS as the sun peeks from behind it. Assigned to Expedition 34/35 in September 2010, he’s been training intensively in the U.S., Russia and elsewhere for the mission. It isn’t his first space flight, but it will be the longest he’s spent off the ground. Hadfield will be on the ISS until May, making him only the second Canadian (after Robert Thirsk) to do a long-duration mission.

The list of skills to master is daunting. Hadfield has to be a scientist. A plumber. An electrician. Trilingual. A spokesperson. A mediator. An engineer. And now, of course, a commander. “The entire partnership is trusting the vehicle, and the crew, to his good judgment and command,” says Edward Tabarah, deputy director of the astronaut office of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Hadfield will also be a human science experiment. Six months in space (without exercise) is comparable to 50 years of aging on the human body. And so, in space, astronauts spend more than two hours each day exercising to prevent muscle atrophy and bone loss. Rehabilitation is still extensive: for two weeks after returning, they can’t drive a car. Microgravity affects almost everything, from bone density to eyesight, and scientists study astronauts like Hadfield to see how they react physically and psychologically. Astronauts have been known to get lost aboard the ISS, says Laurence Harris, professor of psychology and biology at York University, who studies how the senses adapt to microgravity: “If I turned you upside down in your office, you’d have trouble as well.” On the ISS, U.S. astronaut Tom Marshburn will do ultrasounds on Hadfield’s spine to see what happens as it stretches out; without Earth’s gravity to compress it, the human body can grow up to seven centimetres.

Hadfield will be performing experiments, too. This day’s session was a lesson in how to operate the ultrasound machine on the ISS, where he’ll be doing scans of Marshburn’s heart. Sonographers will watch in real time from mission control, part of a study to find out how much the human heart atrophies in zero gravity. (Thirsk was the first subject in this study; Marshburn will be the last.)

Marshburn was a medical doctor before he was an astronaut. Hadfield, a former military fighter pilot, is a quick study: trainers praised his eye-hand coordination, his attention to detail, his almost eerie ability to focus.

At Building 9, Hadfield and Sandoz stepped inside one of the ISS modules with an engineer, who was standing in as the subject. He lay on a cot, electrodes applied to his chest. From a mock-up of mission control several feet away, sonographer David Martin guided Hadfield over the communications system, instructing him where to move the probe. Hadfield was intent. On a screen to his left, an image of the engineer’s heart pumped away in black and white. It shifted to red and blue. “The Jimi Hendrix view. Purple haze,” Hadfield murmured. “Very nice.”

When this 90-minute session was over, Hadfield was off to his next class, and the next—the ultimate astronaut cram session, reviewing everything from the spacewalk to fixing the space station toilet one last time at home base. The Houston countdown was on.

On Dec. 19, Hadfield, Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko will squeeze themselves into the Soyuz, their knees squished up to their chests. Good weather, bad weather, the Soyuz almost always leaves on schedule. Two days after they blast off, they’ll arrive at the ISS, joining a crew of three other astronauts already there. Until March, Hadfield is the mission flight engineer. He then assumes command.

As he prepared to leave Houston for a last visit to Canada—then on to Germany for more training—Hadfield was his usual affable self, but with an undercurrent of intensity people around him noticed: he was wearing the weight of command. “I’ve devoted my whole life to being in a position where, at 53 years old, somebody would say, ‘We want you to command our spaceship,’ ” Hadfield remarked one evening, sitting in the giant ISS mock-up after a busy day of training, “and I could say, ‘Okay. I know what I need to do.’ ”

Hadfield, who was selected one of four new Canadian astronauts in 1992—beating out about 5,330 hopefuls—has been into space twice. In 1995, he was the first Canadian mission specialist on a NASA space shuttle mission, visiting the Russian space station Mir, and the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit. In 2001, on an 11-day space shuttle flight to the ISS to deliver and install the Canadarm2, Hadfield performed two spacewalks, another first for Canada. He spent more than 14 hours outside, travelling around Earth 10 times. (The ISS circles the world 16 times per day.)

He was also NASA’s director of operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, from 2001 to 2003, overseeing ISS crew activities. (Astronauts who travel to the ISS have to speak English and Russian; Hadfield is fluent in both. Canadians must speak French, too.) And he was chief of robotics at the NASA Astronaut Office at Johnson, then chief of ISS operations.

For Jeremy Hansen, 36, who was selected as a Canadian astronaut in 2009, Hadfield’s dedication to the program has been a model. “We do have fewer flight opportunities as Canadians,” he says. “Chris did a lot for the space program not knowing if he would ever fly again. There’s a real feeling he deserves this, not just from the Canadian side.” (Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, Canada’s two newest recruits, are unassigned.) The CSA’s Tabarah, who was part of negotiations, says, “He’s held positions typically given to senior American astronauts. That has helped.”

Hansen, a military fighter pilot like Hadfield, closely watched the older astronaut’s career before he knew him. “He was the astronaut I wanted to be,” Hansen says. As a university student at the Royal Military College of Canada, Hansen agonized over whether to take space science, worrying it might limit him. So he wrote Hadfield, “some random Canadian bothering him over email,” Hansen says. Hadfield wrote back. “The gist of it was, follow your passions, and if you think you’ll love that curriculum, that’s exactly what you should take. And that’s what I did.”

Hadfield, who was born in Sarnia, Ont., and raised on a corn farm near Milton, has wanted to be an astronaut since he saw Neil Armstrong on the moon. “When he landed, he had 16 seconds of fuel left,” Hadfield says. “This was a guy who took risks for things he believed were worthwhile. That’s an important lesson I internalized: some things are worth a really carefully calculated risk.”

In 1992, the CSA assigned Hadfield to the Johnson Space Center, home to NASA’s astronaut corps. Active Canadian and Japanese astronauts are based here permanently, and those from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia come frequently to train. Fresh recruits spend two years in basic astronaut training. Preparing for a mission to the ISS can take another 2½ years.

In the years Hadfield has spent training for this mission, mainly split between Russia and Houston, even the most mundane aspects of life on the ISS have been endlessly rehearsed. In one five-hour drill, which consumed a recent Tuesday afternoon, Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko convened at Building 9 for a “daily ops” session, essentially a day in the life of the station. Hadfield took apart and reassembled the toilet. (Urine on the ISS is recycled into drinking water.)

The three astronauts then practised doing a live chat with school kids as session leaders watched them on a screen from simulated mission control. Trainers played kids with names like “Diamond” and “Nina,” asking what the astronauts did for fun on the ISS, or what would happen in case of an emergency. Romanenko balanced an orange cone on his head. “I think he’s the clown of the group,” one observer whispered.

In his final days in Houston, the soon-to-be commander had the air of the popular kid on campus. He drives a green Mustang convertible. He plays guitar in a band called Bandella, mostly made up of astronauts. (American Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who played her flute on the ISS, is also a member.) People remembered good times spent with Hadfield and his wife, Helene—the couple has three adult children. Colleagues threw a goodbye party for him, and software engineer Evelyn Miralles, who works in the virtual reality development lab, snapped a picture on her camera: it shows Hadfield cutting a white cake with “Bandella” written across the top in swirls of icing.

It’s almost easy, in some moments, to forget the responsibilities Hadfield is carrying. “You can get yourself wrapped around a post up at the space station,” says Bob Tweedy, who trains astronauts on how to use the ISS exercise equipment. “If you have a fire, or you start leaking atmosphere out into space—that’s some heavy-duty stuff.”

Hadfield never forgets. On a hot, sunny day at the Johnson cafeteria, named the Starport Café, he sat on the patio eating his lunch: rehydrated spinach and beef tips from a pouch, the same food he’ll have on the ISS. It’s part of an experiment to see how diet affects bone loss in space (he has to eat the food a few times on Earth to establish a baseline). The first days on the ISS, as the stomach adjusts to zero gravity, “you don’t eat,” he said. “You can’t burp in space. That’s just the way it is.” Spooning grisly spinach bits out of a measuring cup, he continued drily, “I’m just going to finish this, if you guys don’t want any.” Somebody asked if astronauts ever sneak booze up onto the ISS, and Hadfield dropped the banter. At any moment, he said, something could go wrong and require emergency evacuation. “We are our own 911.”

Life on the ISS is unpredictable. On Sept. 5, American astronaut Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide, from Japan, ventured out on a six-hour spacewalk to fix a failing component, one that carries power from the space station’s solar arrays to its systems. The culprit, a faulty bolt, seemed to be jammed, so they used an improvised tool—a toothbrush—to clear the blockage.

Astronauts spend gruelling hours rehearsing spacewalks (called “extravehicular activity,” or EVA, in official lingo) in underwater simulations. After getting into spacesuits weighing about 330 lb., they stand on a platform that lowers them into the water, each one accompanied by a safety diver. “You might come up bleeding,” Hadfield says. “It’s not a friendly suit.” Drills take place at Johnson’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), where the bright lights and the chlorine smell evoke a typical swimming pool—but this one is 40 feet deep, over 200 feet long, and holds submerged mock-ups of ISS modules, visible under the shimmering blue surface.

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That last week of training, Hadfield drove his Mustang to the buoyancy lab and met up with Marshburn. An array of shiny tools was laid out on a table near the pool, tools they’d use underwater, like those in space. (In the water, both astronauts and tools are made neutrally buoyant, so they neither float nor sink.) Doing repairs in a spacewalk is nothing like fixing a roof or a broken windowpane on the ground. For starters, everything needs to be tethered to the station—including the astronaut—to prevent it from floating away. Holding a pistol-grip tool, which looks like a large battery-operated drill, trainer Sandra Fletcher noted that, on Earth, “if you put that on a bolt, the bolt will turn when you pull the trigger. In microgravity, more likely you’re going to be the one that turns.” Astronauts practise anchoring their feet so they don’t do a 360-degree spin.

Surrounded by trainers, the two astronauts manipulated these tools, many of them metallic, claw-like and surprisingly heavy. Astronaut tools can be incredibly expensive, Fletcher said, because so few of them are made. Two days later, Hadfield and Marshburn got into their spacesuits (a difficult process that must itself be rehearsed) and spent six hours underwater in the NBL, one last run before the launch. Pool runs are notoriously demanding, but are a critical way to review spacewalk techniques. The same is true at Johnson’s virtual reality lab, where astronauts wear VR helmets and practise clambering over the ISS or operating the Canadarm2. Hadfield’s been using VR to train on a device called SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue), which is like a jetpack that astronauts could use to propel themselves back to the station if they ever came loose from a tether.

All these years of training have brought the three men closer. “We have the same birthday,” Aug. 29, Marshburn says of Hadfield, who’s a year older. Hadfield speaks fondly of Marshburn and Romanenko, 12 years his junior. Their closeness will serve them well in their five months on the station, where it can seem both lonely and crowded. Astronauts have weekly video chats with their families at home. They have an IP phone on board to make calls over the Internet, so they can call anyone on Earth at almost any time, and an Internet connection too. Many astronauts, Hadfield included, are avid tweeters. There isn’t much privacy. Coleman, who was stationed on the ISS from December to May 2011, says her crew would watch The Big Bang Theory together, one of the few shows everybody could agree on.

Near the entrance to the Johnson Space Center is a long, squat building, the words “ROCKET PARK” written across the side in blocky letters. Inside, the immense Saturn V rocket, 30 storeys tall, stretches from one side to the other. Its size is stunning—this is the rocket that took humans to the moon, the most powerful rocket ever built. It’s also a reminder that the space program is subject to shifts in government, priorities and expectations. This rocket, made up of parts intended for the cancelled Apollo 18 and 20 missions, never flew. Since 1977, it’s been a lawn ornament.

Hadfield acknowledged the space program “goes in waves.” We’re currently in a dip. In 2011, NASA’s 30-year space-shuttle program ended, leaving the Russians with the only viable way of getting astronauts to the ISS. (The U.S. has encouraged commercial companies to develop new ways of bringing humans to low-Earth orbit.) The station is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2020, although many expect that to be extended. But while President Obama has talked about sending space explorers to asteroids or to Mars, in this age of cutbacks, such missions sound like science fiction. “Saying we’ll go to Mars in 15 or 20 years, that’s saying some other president, budget and Congress,” says astrophysicist Adam Frank, who blogs about the cosmos and culture for National Public Radio. “We need somebody to say 10 years. That’s what Kennedy did with the moon.”

Hansen sees future missions taking astronauts to the moon, or to Mars—and a possible future for himself in the burgeoning commercial space industry, piloting ships or repairing satellites. Private companies’ growing interest in human spaceflight, he says, “opens a lot of doors for me in the future.” Hadfield sees it, too. “Canadians on other planets,” he says. “What are Jeremy and David going to do over the next two decades? We’ve learned how to build spaceships that can function in space indefinitely. If you look forward, it’s not going to stop.” To hear Hadfield, the possibilities are endless. To devote so much to becoming an astronaut—one of the chosen few who’ve left Earth, who’ve seen it from space—requires a certain amount of faith.

Two weeks before the launch, Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko will arrive in Kazakhstan and be quarantined with a small entourage of others, including Tabarah. Four days before departure, the astronauts’ families will arrive with Hansen, the crew support astronaut, whose job is to escort them to the launch site and help them navigate the process. After a thorough health screening, Hadfield’s immediate family will be allowed a short visit. Extended family can see him through a glass divider. Then he’s gone, off to the International Space Station.

On one of his last nights in Houston, Hadfield, some other astronauts and NASA crew gathered at a nearby bar in the early evening. Spouses and kids were there. Hadfield mingled with the group, carrying a friend’s toddler on his hip. The sun dipped down, and a few of the kids ran to the window to watch it light up the sky in fiery pink and red.

When asked what he’ll miss most aboard the ISS, Hadfield cites the basics, like a hot shower, or being able to drive out for a slice of pizza on a whim. Then he becomes more sombre. “The contact,” he says. “This is a scientific monastery. It’s not normal human life where you hug somebody, or can be with your family. I’ll miss that.” He shrugs. “But for me it’s all part of the same life.”