Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
A: In the late ’60s I was seven, eight, nine years old, and what was going on in the news at that time that really excited a seven, eight, nine year old boy was the Space Race. The “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that science fiction movie came out, and in reality people were flying Gemini and people were starting to fly Apollo and starting to go to the moon, and the whole purpose of it, which was clear to everybody, was to put a human being on the moon by the end of decade. Within the ’60s, and so as a kid growing up, it didn’t matter where you were, whether you were in Malaysia or Canada or here in Houston, this is a pretty exciting thing, and it really captured my imagination. I had a National Geographic big picture of the moon above my bed on the wall and I was watching the exploits. On July 20, 1969, like so many other people, I sat and looked at a bad, grainy little television and watched those first steps on the moon and then went outside with my family, but really alone, looked up at the moon and thought, that’s what I want to do when I grow up; I’m going to grow up to be something, why don’t I grow up to be that, that is an interesting thing, that’s a new challenge for humanity. But then when I look around I’m thinking, I’m a nine year old kid and I’m a Canadian, what are my odds? Not very good. But I thought, well, up until yesterday people couldn’t even go and walk on the moon and now they can, so maybe I can, too. I started getting ready that night, what do I need to do next? And I need to learn to fly and to scuba dive and to stay in shape and other languages and study in university and all of those things. To become an engineer, a fighter pilot, a test pilot and all of that, which was fun and fascinating, but also all to help maybe in the lifelong dream of having a chance to be an astronaut and to follow in the footsteps of Buzz and Neil. Amazingly enough it worked.
Tell me a little of that story. Tell me about where you grew up.
I was born in Sarnia, Ontario; a small town, it’s where oil was pretty much discovered in North America. It’s an industrial town right on the Great Lakes, beautiful little spot, and my father got hired by an airline when I was about seven or eight and then we moved to a farm closer to Toronto because he was flying for Air Canada based out of Toronto. I spent my childhood basically in two towns, Sarnia for the first half of it, starting kindergarten and grade school there, and then Milton, Ontario, near Toronto, living on a farm for the rest of middle school and for high school. My parents still live on a farm near Milton, Ontario.
How did that place and those people help make you the person that you are?
I’ve raised three kids, my wife and I have three kids. I’ve observed through direct contact the adults they are now is partially the product of where they came from and what we did. With them growing up, but partially how they were wired at birth. There are fundamental differences, and I’m sure I’m no different than my kids. I am born with whatever I was born with, what height I’m going to be and what color my eyes are and how my particular synapses all fire, but I’m also very much the product of the environment; my value system, the educational system that I went through, the people that I met, the people that inspired me or the people that oppressed me. I’m very much a product of all of that. So any successes I’ve had, partially it’s due to genetics, partially it’s due to the people that have trained me and taught me and shaped me over the years, and I have lots of people that I could directly thank for helping get me to where I am today. For teaching me something critical or maybe teaching me something in general that helped me perceive things the way that I do. I think, if you want to grow up to be an astronaut, growing up as a kid in southern Ontario is a pretty good place to come from.
Pick up the story from there for me and give me a thumbnail sketch of big steps in your education and your career that have led you to be here at this point.
I went to a little tiny rural school called Percy W. Merry. I was doing well in school; I was in grade three or four and skipped one of those grades. Fortunately the Ontario educational system in the province of Ontario in Canada, had decided that they should have, what at the time they called “enrichment,” sort of like trying to pick out the kids that were doing real well, how to challenge them, and how to maybe put them in a different educational environment so that they could really learn and be challenged. I got into that program and for three years I was in an enrichment program, really teaching us to think more critically, more analytically, think on a different scale then just getting these exercises done in time for this test. I went to two different high schools, and there was two different tracks, one the high school track to go to the university and one not. At the time you went to an extra year of high school if you’re going to university, nice preparation for the course that I decided to follow. I was a ski instructor; there’s a great opportunity for outdoor activities in Canada and to be able to have the combination of the natural environment, the physical challenges of downhill skiing and racing. Being a ski instructor, for me I learned a lot about managing speed and managing energy. I learned to fly as a teenager; there’s a program in Canada called Air Cadets, it’s sort of like the Civil Air Patrol in the United States but it’s a little closer to the Canadian air force, and they teach young Canadians, whether it’s Sea Cadets, Army Cadets or Air Cadets, they teach them a bunch of technical things, they teach them self-discipline, they give them levels of responsibility that they might not get otherwise as teenagers, and in my case, I spent one summer learning to be a glider pilot and getting my glider pilot’s license. Right at the age of 16 I became a powered pilot. A significant percentage of commercial pilots in Canada, something like half of them, went through Air Cadets, so it’s a great program set up by the country that allows young Canadians to pursue an area of specialized interest that then makes them useful to the country later on. Then I went to our military academies, which in our case was called Royal Roads Military College and then the Royal Military College of Canada, RMC, studying engineering. If you’re going to get into the air force or any phase of the military you have two different ways, you can come in directly or you can come through the military college system and I chose, I figured, well, the odds of being an astronaut are pretty lousy and I need something else as a real career, and so I decided I want to study engineering and then maybe I’ll be able to be a pilot, and then maybe I’ll be able to be a pilot as my profession for my whole life. Maybe I’ll get to be an astronaut, and fortunately, all of those things worked out, but I would have been happy at each one of those stages as I worked my way through. When I came out of military college I was lucky enough to be able to do a, master’s work, graduate level work. Then go on to fly and be able to fly Canada’s new fighter at the time which is our version of the F-18, we called it the CF-18. I flew those for NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command], then I did exchange to the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, and then flew as an exchange pilot, a Canadian flying F-18s with the U.S. Navy in Patuxent River. So that long, convoluted flow from an advanced education program as a ten year old kid or eleven year old kid in the enrichment program in elementary/middle school in Canada, all the way through to getting selected as an astronaut. I see myself very much a product of all of those structures and capabilities that Canada provided me.
To fly as an astronaut is to assume some risks that most people don’t have in their lives; question is, what is it you feel that we get or learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risk?
Almost everything worthwhile carries with it some sort of risk, whether it’s starting a new business, whether it’s leaving home, whether it’s getting married, or whether it’s flying in space. You are taking a risk: you are going from one known set of circumstances into a new set of circumstances, and everybody takes some of those risks during their life. It’s a natural progression of maturity, of the desire to do something with yourself, the desire to have a measure of success and increased capability and increased comfort in your life. Also maybe the desire to be able to look back at your life and say, I did something worthwhile in the time that I was alive. That manifests itself all different ways in human behavior. People try and answer those questions to themselves doing all different sorts of things. I made the choice early on what I thought was important was technical; I think it’s important to push back the level of what we can do technically, and I chose aerospace, and as a fighter pilot, I helped defend North America by using the latest of aerospace technology, but that wasn’t where I wanted to end up. I wanted to then get into aircraft design and testing and try and make airplanes safer, make airplanes more capable. We burnt a hydrogen-fueled engine on the wingtip of an F-18 trying to understand how to build a vehicle that could get you across the Pacific in an hour. Doing high angle of attack testing of F-18s, trying to make airplanes that could fly where airplanes could never fly before, that was really interesting to me, and it was risky. I lost a good friend a year for ten years as a fighter pilot and a test pilot. I knew that it was risky. My wife knew that we go to funerals on a fairly regular basis of people that are just doing their job, but you can’t make that omelet without breaking some eggs. You cannot do it. You have to be able to take some risks. Some things are worth taking a risk for. Even if you decide, OK, I’m going to spend my whole life sitting at my kitchen table and going in between there and my bed and hiding from risks, your house, eventually the ceiling falls down; there’s an earthquake, a hurricane, a lightning storm, a tornado or whatever. There’s no guarantees, you may as well try and do something worthwhile in the meanwhile and minimize the risks where you can. For me, spaceflight is just a natural extension of all of that. For the first time in history, if we muster all of our best of capabilities, we can just now safely start to leave the Earth, to go away from our planet, and to be part of that, to be able to be one of the early explorers that is opening the capability of leaving Earth, is fundamentally interesting to me but I also judge it as a very worthwhile thing. It’s an important thing in this stage of human development, like the first sailboats that left land or the first vehicles that could drive safely and conveniently on the surface, or the first airplanes. We’re at that level and I’ve wanted to be a part of it my whole life. I’ve devoted 20 years as an astronaut, and now there’s risk involved. I’m going to fly a Russian spaceship as the left-seater, sort of like the co-pilot and then live on a space station for six months and we might die in the effort but I might die driving home from work tonight. I’m going to manage things as best I can so that I live a long and healthy life, but a long, healthy and worthwhile life.
You’re about to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 34 and 35. Chris, tell me what are the goals of this flight and what are your jobs going to be on this mission?
The space station is there for a purpose and that is to do science that can’t be done on the surface of the Earth. That is the core purpose of the space station, and so our job, as the people on board, is to make sure that that science gets done. Everything else is sort of downstream of that. Yes, we need to fix things as they break; sometimes we have to go outside on spacewalks; sometimes we have to use the robot arm and grab a new delivery truck that’s full of equipment, but the core of it is to run those hundred and ten experiments that are running on board, and that’s our main job, to be the lab technicians as well as the plumbers and the delivery men and all the rest of it, but really the lab technicians that keep the International Space Station as the big international laboratory that it is.
Now you didn’t do any of that the last time you visited the International Space Station. What are you looking forward to about the station, on this trip?
On my first spaceflight I went to the Russian space station, Mir and built a piece of it using space shuttle Atlantis. The second spaceflight went to the international, the early, small International Space Station, and built a piece of it using space shuttle Endeavour. And both times I thought, wow, wish I could stay; what a desirable thing to do in life, be able to leave Earth and not just go build something and come back but to leave Earth for a while, change your zip code for a while and really become a resident. Both places I just felt so jealous of the experience as we undocked and left. And this time after a lot of lucky coincidences and a lot of hard work, now I get to be one of those crew members that stays for an extended period away from the planet, and it’s been a long road getting there, it’s been a huge amount of qualifications necessary to get there, a lot of luck to get there, but for me, it’s really a culmination of all the things that I’ve done for the last 20 years as an astronaut. I’m really looking forward to not just visiting space but moving to Earth orbit and having all of the internal changes, the understanding and the revelation that comes with that. I’m really looking forward to it.
During your time there you’re going to have a number of crewmates, some who are there before you, some who will arrive later, two of them that you’re going to be with the whole time, and one of them, Tom Marshburn, you’re already “flown” with, although it was underwater on a NEEMO [NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations] mission. Has the experience of that mission, working with that crewmate, helped you guys prepare for this flight?
I count myself hugely lucky to be flying with a group of people, the group of humans that I’m flying in space with. I’ve known all of them for a long time; Pavel Vinogradov and I trained together for a Mir flight back in the early ’90s. He came over to my house, I gave him his first Jet Ski ride back in about 1994, so we’ve been training together for a long time. Tom and I have climbed mountains together as part of [National] Outdoor Leadership School, as you say, we’ve lived at the bottom of the ocean together, and through all of that what’s important is shared experience. If you’re going to take a small group of people and ask them to do something that is really complicated or has really high stakes and potential for really complex things to happen, then it is great to have had a shared experience in advance, and as deep and representative an experience as possible. When something hard happens, if you can look at each other and remember back when we saw this before, or remember when we were out Jet Skiing together, or remember when we were living on the bottom of the ocean, that really gives you a foundation to build upon, to rely on and a shared confidence in your ability to deal with the unknown. I think the process by which we select astronauts and cosmonauts, the way we train together, not just the technical training but the psychological and the interpersonal training that we get is a really important and vital part of being successful in spaceflight.
Any time you make a spaceflight you’re going to miss certain things on Earth. On this flight, it turns out you’re going to be away for Christmas and New Year’s. What are your thoughts about spending those holidays in space?
My family lives all around the world. I have a son who lives in China, a son who lives in Germany and a daughter who lives in Ireland and my wife is back and forth, United States and Canada, so really at the Christmas holiday is when we get together. This year we’ve decided to bump it up a little and we’re going to get together for Christmas in Kazakhstan. Makes a nice card, Christmas in Kazakhstan, that’s where we’ll be this year. So we’re going to celebrate a little early. On the actual day, the traditional day, the twenty-fifth, of course, it’ll be like the times when I was working here in Houston in Mission Control on Christmas Day, which I did several times. It’ll be either we’ll shift the date; I’ll phone in and have a video conference or talk to each of my family members all around the world. It’s an understood part of the job. This is a very special year for us as a family and everyone understands that it’s not going to be normal and this’ll be a year, even though it’s not typical, a year to talk about for the rest of our lives.
I want to get you to set the scene for me. Tell me about the International Space Station that you’re going to arrive at. Tell me, what’s there now? What are the modules and the different facilities there that are there to support you and your crewmates, your mission and yourselves?
So you’re in a spaceship, and you wake up and in the far distance you see a star, and it’s like almost miraculous in that all the other stars stay the way they are but this one star, as you approach it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and then it stops being a point of light and starts becoming this three-dimensional thing, and the closer you get to it, the more you’re sort of staring at it in incredulity and fascination because it turns this big bug of appendages and things sticking out. Then it becomes enormous and then it’s the size of a small town that you are approaching, it’s huge. I felt that way coming up to Mir, I felt that way coming up to station even when it was small, and now, from our little Soyuz looking out the window to come to station, as big as it is now, we’ll see it, of course, the Japanese module, the European module, then all the American segments up the middle, all of the Russian segments in the back, the huge truss and the huge solar arrays: it’s a place away from Earth that humans have built. It’s truly a big outpost or a big first great landing in another part of the universe and it feels miraculous to sneak up on one of those and to find it in space, then drive ourselves in and dock with our little spaceship, equalize pressure, open the hatch and go into this thing. It’s every science fiction book, it’s every Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination of what the orbital module might look like as you come up, and it’s this little astronaut kid’s dream to be able to do that. It’s a massive, capable, human creation orbiting the world, and I’m really looking forward to opening that hatch.
One of the pieces that were invaluable in putting that together is Canadarm2. That’s a hunk of technology that you delivered to the space station. Tell me what else is still to come for Canadian robotics and the station, for Canadarm and Dextre [Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator] and other things that are still in the pipeline.
The space station, as far as construction goes, is almost finished. There’s a Russian laboratory to come up and there are other piece parts to go on but fundamentally it’s built. That was job one for Canadarm2, to grab things out of the back of the shuttle or to hand off from the shuttle’s arm to the Canadarm2, take them around, build the station incrementally like a huge Meccano set or a huge LEGO set, getting bigger and bigger. But that crane phase for the Canadarm, the construction phase, is pretty much finished. Now it’s really just an extension of ourselves on the outside. When we need to go out and look at something, it’s nice to have a camera on the end that you can go have a good close look. When a new spaceship comes up, some of them reach out, grab one, take it around, plug it in and help deliver all of the equipment to station and then return them back to Earth or get rid of them again. Then also like a cherry picker or like a Wichita lineman, sometimes you need to go out and fix something. You need to use both hands and with the Canadarm2, as a spacewalker, you can click your feet into the foot restraint and the arm can drive you around as if you were a tool on the end of a surgeon’s probe, and then it’ll get you exactly where you need. As Suni [Williams] and Aki [Hoshide] did recently in fixing the big electrical box on the outside of space station. The arm is just a wonderful extension and tool for us to be able to work on the outside of the space station. Canadarm2 after having helped build the station all the way through continues to keep the station vital and capable. When something comes up with new experiments, fresh food and clean clothes, that’s what we do, the grabbing and installing and have our Christmas morning as a result of Canadarm2’s work.
You’ve mentioned that the assembly of the station that has gone, taken over ten years, pretty much done, and the focus now is turning on to science. How do you explain to people what the potential is for what kind of science return the station can provide?
Having the laboratory like the space station functions on two different levels. One is the obvious one that you have a laboratory with basically no gravity. You can then do experiments that are impossible anywhere else—well, maybe you can go to the top of a building, drop your experiment and it falls. The time that it’s falling is sort of weightless; we do that, drop it down old mine shafts so it can fall a couple thousand meters, but that’s only a short period of seconds and there’s still the air drag slowing it down. You can put it in the back of an airplane and maybe get 20 seconds of good weightlessness. On the space station we have perpetual absence of gravity, and so there are all sorts of experiments that you can do on space station that you can’t do anywhere else, and that is the fundamental core of it. But the other part is, there are some things that are just fundamentally exciting to people and one of them is exploration and leaving Earth. To be able to do this thing that is new in the human experience is fundamentally exciting. When I sit next to somebody on a bus or in an airplane and they find out that I’m one of the humans that leaves Earth, that’s all we talk about from then on because no matter whom they are, this is an interesting thing. This is new in the human experience. This is something that is sort of joyous and exciting to hear about, and as a result of that it brings people together. That fundamental shared excitement of something new in humanity’s experience, no matter where you’re from, it brings people together and so it doesn’t just bring astronauts together or people on the bus together, but it brings scientists and researchers together. Not only have we built a place where you can do experiments with no gravity, where we have a lot of electricity, a lot of time, a really good environment, but also it challenges and it inspires people from all around the world to try and use this new experience, to bring them together, to get people from one corner of the world talking to people from the other corner of the world that without this shared new capability and challenge, they would never have spoken to each other. And so it functions on both those levels, we see it every day on board station, and a lot of the work that goes on is the daughter or granddaughter of that type of great harmony of environments.
Let’s talk about some of that research. One of the areas that station research focuses on is finding out how being in that environment affects a human body and what we can do to counteract the bad effects. Tell me about two or three of the human life sciences investigations that you’re going to be involved with.
If you’re going to do experiments on a space station, some of them are going to be just taking advantage of the lack of gravity. Some of them are going to be to look at the world, at the universe, to test equipment and to just look at things that are different because there’s no gravity. One of the big differences is how a human body functions when you take away gravity. Some of it is obvious. When you swallow your food it doesn’t sit in the bottom of your stomach, it floats around. When you are floating inside the station your balance system doesn’t know which way is up. You don’t stand up and your body never has to push the blood back up to your head again. For six months you don’t have to hold your head up, that’s how lazy you can be. The resulting changes in the human body are one of the things that we study. One of the experiments we have on board is called Vascular [Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight], and it’s looking at what happens to the cardiovascular system when you live in an environment like that. The heart actually shrinks. You’re aging on a rapidly accelerated scale, your heart actually shrinks and your blood vessel response changes; it actually sets us up to cardiovascular problems. If you had something that was pretty low grade on Earth, after six months of an environment like that, a risk of a heart attack or a stroke might actually be quite a bit higher. We have a sequence of experiments that’s taking blood samples and monitoring our body while we’re exercising and doing different things to try and understand what’s going on with our cardiovascular system. It also challenges people to try and do the science in orbit. We have an experiment called Microflow [Microflow technology demonstration] that used to be a big piece of equipment installed at a hospital, they would try to figure out how can we actually sample the crew member’s blood while they’re in orbit and get looking at the individual cellular level, as a result, have got it down to the size of a toaster. It’s like Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” where he’s trying to see if that thing in his chest has made his blood radioactive, he puts this little thing in, tests his blood and looks at it. Now on orbit we have a thing the size of a toaster, it’s not quite movie grade yet, but we can take a tiny amount of blood, and using an optical system that was very recently developed, that little bit of blood goes through there and it can give us results in blood analysis within ten minutes. There’s a capability driven by an opportunity, driven by a set of circumstances that then has great opportunity on Earth. If you can now do blood work with a very small machine, then remote communities can do it and food processing factories can do it. It’s taking this challenge and some of the limitations of what we’re doing, coming up with a new product and then realizing that this is going to be good all over the place. That’s a piece of hardware we’ll be testing on our crew. There’s a lot of orthostatic stuff as well. The final piece I want to talk to you about is the aging process; the loss of bone and the loss of muscle strength it is so rapid for astronauts in space. It’s as if you spent months, years, or even decades on Earth, happens in just a few months in orbit. Using changes in exercise and changes in diet, we have basically found a way to beat that type of osteoporosis so that we can have crews that used to come back with significant bone loss, now come back basically with no bone loss at all. This is really important if we’re going to leave Earth, go to an asteroid or go to Mars, we don’t want the person to show up on Mars as a jellyfish. They have to show up and be able to put on their spacesuit, go out and explore the surface, or if after six months on station you have an emergency spacewalk you need to be strong and fit with a good skeleton to go fight the suit and work outside. For the people here on Earth that are naturally aging, getting osteoporosis and muscle wasting, there is a combination of specific resistive exercise, a regimen of exercise, and a specific type of diet, that we have proven in this environment. It will allow an astronaut to stay healthy for the full six months, and therefore improving health of people on Earth and allowing us to go further out into the solar system.
And station is also packed with a lot of specialized gear for science research in other scientific disciplines, too. Give me a couple of examples of the different kinds of other science you’re going to be working on.
We don’t know what the universe is made of, strangely enough. We’ve been looking up at the sky, see things, but we really fundamentally are just discovering that we don’t even really know what the universe is made of. If you measure how fast stars and galaxies are moving away from each other the gravity, gravitational pull numbers, it all doesn’t make sense unless you say, there must be something out there causing these other effects. We call it dark matter and dark energy, by all of our theories there should have been the same amount of matter and antimatter created at the beginning of the universe. So how are you going to figure that out? It’s hard down here on the surface; the atmosphere filters most of that information. So we decided a little over a year ago to mount on top of the space station a seven-ton magnet that collects the matter and the tiny little particles of the universe. It’s already processed 32 billion different particles from the universe. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and all of the different sensors that are in it are trying to understand what the stuff of the universe is: what are the origins of it and therefore what’s the future of it and what is our place in it. That’s a really hard thing to do on the surface of the Earth, it’s even hard to do on a satellite, but the station is a huge, powerful, stable platform above the atmosphere for decades, and so it’s a great place to mount a long-term sensing experiment like that. We also have a sensor on the outside looking at all the x-ray sources in the universe, trying to understand black holes and some of the less visible stars out. On the inside without gravity, heat doesn’t rise; seems simple but it’s hard to get your mind around what that means. If you put a pot of water on a hot plate, it doesn’t boil right because you don’t get cold water at the top and hot water at the bottom then the heat rises and causes those nice convection patterns. So what happens if you take a tube of water on the space station and you heat one end? Does the water just get warm at this end and stay cold down here? Well, there was an Italian physicist, Marangoni, who realized that surface tension, if you take a glass of wine and you swirl your glass of wine around and you see how it sticks to the wine glass, that’s the surface tension, the viscosity of the wine. That viscosity changes with temperature, so if you have a tube of water and you heat one end, the Marangoni Effect, viscosity of the water, changes as you heat it; in effect, the water starts to move around due to an entirely different process than we normally can see on Earth. If you start thinking about it, you can then study all sorts of fundamental fluid physics that we just can never study on Earth. We can look at how stars form because here we have an environment with particulate in it just like little bits of matter in the universe and get it spinning and see how those things behave over time, how they flow with these Marangoni currents. We can design a blood sensor with just a tiny little bit of human blood, but because we understand due to the Marangoni forces how it will flow, we can then take a tiny blood sample and just using the viscosity of it, move it around and sample it, so that’s an application for here on Earth. When you’re welding something it’s not just gravity that’s moving the liquid metal around but it’s a lot of those Marangoni forces. The viscosity forces melt the flux and the metal all together, and we can better understand how welding works and improve quality of welding. So the space station is this incredible, unique laboratory, an environment that has been really hard to build, but we’ve created this thing. So many of the leading minds of the world, right up to Nobel laureates, are using that capability up there to push further back into our understanding of fundamental processes and where we are in the universe.
And for the crew, you’re not only there to help run those experiments, you’re there to make sure that the station continues to operate so that those experiments can run. What do you do during the day? What’s a crew member’s day like on board the station?
For the people that have been out on a sailboat or a ship for a long time, where you get out of sight of land, you’re there for some purpose. Maybe you’re transporting equipment somewhere, you’re going to do research, going to go look at coral reef life, or maybe you’re just out for a day sailing and you want to get a tan or go visit or just have a nice time. Part of your day is to do what you went for, to look at the coral reef or to lay back and look at your tan, but part of it is getting the sailboat ready when you’re about to take it out of harbor. It is operating the sailboat, steer it, get the sail trimmed right; you have to pay attention, things break. Your compass starts sticking, your radio or the toilet in the sailboat doesn’t work properly—part of your day is going to be that. Then part of your day is just taking care of yourself as a human being, you need to sleep, eat, and wash. Space station’s exactly the same. You spend part of your day just being a person. You wake up in the morning, take care of all of your typical morning activities: breakfast, read the news, use the toilet, get cleaned up, maybe exercise. We don’t get exercise for free on the space station just by walking around, raising our arm or picking up water, you don’t fight gravity ever, therefore you can be so lazy and you have to deliberately exercise, sort of like if you were living on a boat, you have to deliberately exercise. Then part of your day is fixing things. It’s a big, complicated structure and things break, so part of the life of an astronaut is fixing everything from a cord in the back of a laptop that has stopped working to the air purification system, or maybe something as huge as going outside to replace or repair a big piece of the station that has broken. Another part of the day is running the experiments on board, which is the real core purpose of being there. Your days are divided up just like that. Every day you’re a human being staying alive, a technician keeping the space station alive, and a scientist doing research.
When you arrive on the Soyuz spacecraft, you’re going to join the International Space Station crew as a flight engineer, but in the midst of your mission, when Expedition 35 begins, you’re going to become the commander of the International Space Station. How’s that change life for you?
I’m lucky enough to be able to spend just a little under six months, on the space station. It is a long time, six months, a lot of things can happen, but for the first half, which I count myself really lucky, is that I don’t have to show up there and be in charge. I show up and the commander will be Kevin Ford, and what a great opportunity for me to learn because eventually I’m going to be asked to command the space station, but I don’t have to jump in and be full speed, running and take over right away. I can do a bunch of on the job training. I can “fleet up,” as they say in the Navy, and I can do my job, be a flight engineer answerable to the commander, and listen to all the ways that Kevin has decided. Kevin is learning them from Suni Williams who learned them from Gennady Padalka so there’s this long pedigree of refined and proven ways to do things that are never going to be seen properly here on our simulators. There’s always subtle differences, so I will have three months to really learn how Kevin’s running things and look at it: if I were the commander I would do that; I would do that differently, I wouldn’t do that, and I’ll be able to pick and choose. Come March, when it’s time for Kevin and his crew to get into their Soyuz and go home, he and I will have a ceremony on board, salute each other, and from that moment on the health of my crew, the space station, and all of the things we’re trying to do productively, are all resting on my shoulders, weightlessly, but resting on my shoulders. I need to be ready for that. I’ve been training with that in mind for several years here on Earth, working to build the crew, to make sure we have the skills but also the relationship that would allow us to be healthy and productive during that time, and also making sure that I understand things well enough. No matter what breaks on the station or no matter what experiment’s going on, I have to have some understanding so that I can make the right decisions, as things happen during the six months. At this stage in my career, in my 50s, I’ve been an astronaut 20 years, flown a couple times, I consider it a huge lucky break, because I’ve been gathering experience, I’ve been trying to see how to do these things. I’ve been learning from other people, and to be given the opportunity to command what is essentially the world’s spaceship, now at this stage of my career, I consider it a great responsibility but also a great turn of events and a great challenge and opportunity for myself. I’m really looking forward to it.
You’re also going to be the first Canadian astronaut to command the space station. What’s it mean for Canada and Canada’s space agency to have a commander?
Canada had its first spacecraft go to orbit 50 years ago; it was called Alouette. We were the third nation on Earth to have a satellite in space. We did it cooperatively—it was on an American rocket, but a Canadian satellite, so it kind of laid the grounds for how we’re doing everything. We have some specialty back home in Canada. We have a set of our own interests, in this case, the upper atmosphere and the northern lights. Living in the north, we had a need, a capability, we cooperated with another nation and we got ourselves into space. So we’ve been in the game from the beginning right on the accomplishments of Alouette, that very first satellite. Canada has almost linearly built our capability and our responsibility and therefore our international respect over time. We went from that to sensing satellites, telecommunications satellites, RADARSAT, the first Canadian to fly on the shuttle, Canadarm which did so many things from the Hubble telescope to all of the satellites. It grabbed and released, and then with the other arm, onto the space station. We’ve had Canadians go, from Mark Garneau, our first who was a payload specialist back in the early ’80s, through to Julie Payette who was the main flight engineer running the space shuttle during her last flight, and then Bob Thirsk who lived on station as a flight engineer. Even though no one could map it out on purpose that way, it has appeared fairly linearly and progressive to now where Canada is in a position to have a Canadian command the International Space Station. Each has been a door opening of possibilities for young Canadian kids: this is something you can do, this isn’t just a dream but this is an actual career choice; this is a thing that can happen in your life. As a result, this is a big deal in Canada. This is a brand new capability. It’s something to be proud of, something to look at in perspective of time, look backwards and see how we got here, look forwards and say, look where this is going. We’re going to other planets eventually and Canada is part of this. I feel the responsibility of that as the first Canadian to do it. Fundamentally, for me it’s the first time. Regardless, it’s a big deal for me, but also it’s a big deal for my country, for my space agency and for where I’m from, and I’m happy that people are interested in it. I’m fundamentally happy that this is a continuation of all of those capabilities and it continues to open opportunities for the Canadians that follow after me.
What’ll it mean to you to have been that Canadian who was first?
I hate to jinx something by talking about things in advance because I would like things to go well; that’s been my goal for a decade, preparing for this flight of getting myself into a position to try and do this job well. Since the outset I’ve said I want to come back with a healthy crew, with a crew that sort of my measure is, would they want to go do this again right away and if they want to go do this again, then it was a good human experience. I want to come back with a healthy space station, and having done as much of the science as we possibly could in our six months on the station. If through luck and the work of the crew we get all those things done, then of course this is one of the pinnacles of what I was asked to do during my life, and this is a big event for me personally. It takes a lot of work, a lot of focus, but it deserves it and I’m really working hard hoping that when we land at the end of May that I’ll be able to look back and say I did what I set out to do and I handed the station off to Pavel Vinogradov in as good a state as I possibly could. It’s something that I can look back on as an accomplishment and a threshold of my life that was really important for me.
Anyone who has taken a look at your biography sees that among many interests that you have, music is one of them, and you’ve got some special music plans for this mission. Tell me about your plans for recording music and a sing-along with students all across Canada.
On board the space station there’s a Canadian guitar. It’s a Larrivee, made in Vancouver. That’s just luck, I didn’t get the guitar up there, but it turns out when they bought one in a local guitar shop here in Houston, they ended up buying a Larrivee, which is great, it’s a nice guitar. I play guitar in a couple bands and sing. I’ve fronted bands here in Houston for 20 years, and it’s just a natural extension for me to play music no matter where I am, whether it’s at Star City or Tsukuba, Japan, or on board the space station; I played guitar on board Mir when I was there back in 1995. I thought, since I’m there long enough; why not write music about the experience of traveling in space. The early sailors, the early miners, the early cowboys, the pioneers that moved into a new human environment, all of them have recorded the experience not just in journals, but also in song and in music. To be able to use that new environment to help inspire art in the form of music is a way that I thrive on Earth. I’m not by any means the world’s best musician, but I love it and I’ve had lots of people to play music with. To be able to do that on space station is fairly new in the human experience and I want to make the most of it. You can record it lots of different ways. You can write a journal, a blog every day, take a million photographs out the window, try and capture this new human experience different ways. For me, music is a great way to do that recording. I’ve half-written a bunch of songs and I’ve completed some. I’ve made sure that we have the equipment on board, not just the guitar but the right combinations of pickups, microphones, recording equipment, and files and how to get it down to the ground, so that we have a reasonable recording studio on the International Space Station. I’m going to have the chance to float weightless inside the Cupola with the world rolling by underneath playing a guitar inside probably the most scenic recording studio that’s ever existed, and a chance to record the songs that I have written, to work and write new songs or expand the songs while I’m up there, and for the rest of my life, to have those as my souvenirs, my memories of living away from the Earth. My brother, who I write songs with, said, imagine if the first people going to Mars, if when they sit around their mess table on the six months on the way to Mars and they sing old space songs and one of the songs they sing is something that you wrote on board the space station, a space shanty or whatever, what an interesting idea, and it’s not inconceivable, so I’m really looking forward to that. Playing music in space also attracts a lot of interest from other musicians. Lots of musicians of all different levels, right up to some pretty famous bands have said, hey, we would love to play with you while you’re up there or record something and we’ll incorporate you into our concert or something like that. I’ve been looking at what’s the best way to do that. One of them is with schools across Canada. How do you get involved with all the grade school and high school bands across the country, and there are couple good programs that exist. One is called MusiCounts, and they try to have one Canadian celebrity song a year that is then learned by the school choirs and played during the year and it’s themed for the year or some sort of particular theme. This year they decided to make a space theme and they teamed me with one of the musicians in the Canadian band called Barenaked Ladies, guy named Ed Robertson; Ed’s a great songwriter, he’s from the part of the world that I’m from. So we’ve been working together for about a year now on a song, and actually this week we just recorded sort of the final version of the song, and it will be put into full orchestrated form and sent to schools so that the high school bands all have their particular, the third trumpet has his part to play and the whole thing put together, choirs will learn the words, and then I will be recording a part of it on the space station as well and sending it down. There will then be a way to have the Barenaked Ladies’ version of it with me adding in harmonies and singing verses and playing a little bit of guitar, and then at school concerts throughout the school year, they will be able to play along with us. They’ll be able to use our recording, our music, or even conceivably the whole thing happening live or partially live with my recording and Ed Robertson and company. It’s a really nice different way, to tie the newness of the experience and the imaginative part of the experience with people all across the country. It’s a real privilege to be a part of that.
Sounds like it’ll be fun.
Oh yeah, it’ll be fun, too.
Any increment on the space station has the plan to remain flexible to respond to things that you made reference to earlier. Sometimes that means going outside. What is, as we speak today, what is the plan for spacewalks during your time on board?
We have a richness of experience in our crew. People have done multiple spacewalks in the past, both on the Russian side and on the U.S. side or the Canadian side, so we’ve been training for years to do spacewalks. There are all sorts of things that we have looked at and said, if this fails we have to go out and do a spacewalk within this number of days to go fix it—electrical things, cooling things or something like that. So we’re ready to go do those. Right now, as of today, there is nothing broken on the space station that will absolutely, black and white, hard-require us to go outside, but sort of like maintenance on your car—well, I think I can get another hundred miles out or another thousand miles out before I have to change the oil or get the air conditioner fixed. Well, another thousand miles go by and you go, maybe another 500—there’s a lot of things on station like that, too. You don’t want to replace things that don’t need replacing, but there is some sort of regular maintenance required to keep a machine running, and, unlike your car, where if it breaks you can just pull over to the side and call AAA or call a tow truck, if the station has a serious problem we have to continue to live and survive up there, so it’s a real balance, juggling, guessing game as to when you have to go outside and fix things. We’re trying to make sure that the crew can go outside and do any of the spacewalks it may be asked to do, everything from something minor like retrieving a payload, the MISSE [Materials International Space Station Experiment] payload that is collecting particles of the universe, it’s been out there collecting them for years, we can fold that up like a big suitcase and bring it inside, and that would be a good thing to do. There are cameras and lights outside that have failed that decrease our capability to see what we’re doing; some of those need to be swapped out. There are covers that need to go on certain parts of the station to improve and lengthen their life because of all the thermal cycles and the micrometeorite damage. There’s a big long shopping list of stuff we really should do as soon as we get outside and have the spare time. Like doing maintenance on your house; I have to clean out the gutters—that can wait a little while but the next time it rains it’s going to be a mess. That’s kind of the boat we’re in. So as a crew we’re trained, we’re ready, and we’re optimistic that something’ll break.
The landscape of spaceflight is changing these days. Now we’ve got private companies even flying supply ships to the space station and, and all the different countries in the world working together instead of competing. Is this the kind of arrangement, that you see continuing on into the future of human space exploration?
Space travel is hard. It’s easy to do if you’re willing to kill people regularly—like in the early days of aviation, planes crashed all the time, people got injured, it was sort of [the attitude] “you know, it’s a risky business, OK, people are going to die.” That’s not acceptable in space travel. Because of the complexity, the cost and the visibility of it, we want it to be safe, as safe as we possibly can, and therefore it takes a lot of preparation and it’s expensive and it’s rare. When something takes a lot of preparation and it’s expensive and rare, it’s hard to do as one person, it’s hard to do as a small group or even as an individual company, sometimes even as a nation. I mean, Canada has not decided to launch their own people into space because of the complexity and the cost; we would rather share the costs with another country or another group of countries in order to make it as economically logical as possible, and the whole world is doing that for the International Space Station, or at least 15 of the leading nations of the world. That makes sense. If we had some huge breakthrough in engines so that suddenly getting to space was just as easy as driving to the corner store, if you could just have your “Back to the Future” little thing on top of your car where you throw in a banana peel and “poof!” you’re off to space, the whole game would be different and people would be going all the time. But it is still complex, hard, dangerous and expensive, and so for the foreseeable future it is going to be, both at the business level and at the governmental level, an international venture to build and live on the space station, go to the moon, go to asteroids, and go to Mars. I think it’s the right thing to do. I think as a species, as a shared group of people living on the surface of this planet, it makes sense if we’re going to leave it and go somewhere else in the solar system that we should try and do it as collectively as possible, both to share the cost of it but also to share the benefits of it. So it’s kind of driven by the physics and the complexity, but there’s certain purity and a beauty to that. The result that we’re doing it internationally and collectively, I think, is a really good one, and I hope that we can prolong that as long as possible and not turn it into just a purely competitive, a one-shot deal or kind of a thoughtless, selfish way of exploring the universe. I really like the way we’re doing it as a species right now and I want to help prolong that.
What is it that we are learning now on this space station that is preparing us for future exploration further beyond Earth orbit?
On the space station, let’s look at something really simple; a little pump that has to move water around like the pump in your radiator in your car. Well, pumps have liquid in there, the pump spins and it moves the liquid through. Without gravity the liquid doesn’t stay in the bottom part of the pipe. It will stick to the walls of the pipe and the pump will just be spinning and moving air through the middle, so a pump doesn’t work in space. You need to redesign it, and once redesigned, it doesn’t cool itself normally because heat doesn’t rise, so how do you keep your pump from overheating? Seems trivial and simple, but you have to solve that problem. How do you build a space pump? How do you build a space fan? How do you build a space computer, a space toilet, a space everything? How do you make sure that it’s going to work? Because if you say, let’s go to the biggest rock in the asteroid belt; OK, and now we are, our spaceship needs pumps. Well, if you launch from Earth and you start leaving Earth and you find out that you had a bad idea how to build pumps, then you can’t just turn around and come home and you’re fundamentally flawed. You need to test those somewhere, and you can’t test things perfectly here on the surface of the Earth because you can’t escape gravity and the effects of gravity, so the space station is the test-bed for the spaceships of the future. Just by its very nature we’re learning what works and what doesn’t work, how to collect solar energy from the sun, make it power and cool a spaceship; how to, what thrusters, what fuel should you use, how do you have your thrusters work; what material do you build your spaceship from—if you know you’re going to get peppered by micrometeorites and ultraviolet energy from the sun and radiation from the universe, what do you build it out of? We’re experimenting deliberately, and just by de facto, just by being there, with all of those things on the space station, and it is our big proving ground. It is our test track for building spaceships in the future, and it is therefore the diving board, the launching board, that’s going to allow us to confidently go further away from Earth