Space station hits middle age at 10

This week marks the 10th anniversary of human life, work and research aboard the International Space Station, prompting Canadian astronauts to reflect on their time in the orbiting laboratory.

Retired Canadian astronaut Dave Williams still bursts with patriotic pride when describing his visit to the International Space Station.

Way up there, he says, he saw many reminders of home.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of human life, work and research aboard the orbiting space lab, and Williams is one of six Canadian astronauts who have dropped in for a visit.

Williams, now 56, made a trip up to the space outpost three years ago.

"It is arguably the most complex piece of technology built in the history of the human species," he told The Canadian Press.

During his stay, Williams took part in three space walks — setting a Canadian record by spending a total of 19 hours outside the station.

He says his most memorable experience came during the second sortie into the void of space, when he went out to replace a failed gyroscope. He wound up spending roughly six hours tethered to the robotic Canadarm 2.

Suspended there in space, he was surrounded by reminders of his homeland.

"I was sitting there looking at the Canadian flag on my shoulder, the Canadian logo on Canadarm 2 and the Canadian logo on the arm of the (visiting) space shuttle," he recalled in an interview.

"It was one of the proudest moments of my life as a Canadian — to think of the role that we're playing as a major space-faring nation of the world."

Prominent role

When the astronauts noticed there were more Canadian logos to be seen in space than American ones, one joked that the space station merely served as the base for the Canadarm.

But Canada is, of course, just one player in what some consider humanity's greatest project.

It was on Nov. 2, 2000, that three space voyageurs — American astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — became the first humans to take up residence there.

Since then, close to 200 explorers have travelled up. Fifteen countries have contributed modules and hardware, and more than 600 experiments have been conducted aboard.

Julie Payette was the first Canadian to pay a visit in May 1999 when she went up on an assembly mission with the U.S. shuttle Discovery. Payette is also the only Canadian astronaut to have visited twice.

Bob Thirsk, who spent six months there last year, remembers when Payette joined him for just over a week during her second visit to the space station in July 2009.

Naturally, the two Canadian tourists talked about home.

"We passed over Western Canada in the daytime and I pointed out to her all of my favourite western Canadian sites — such as Vancouver, Kelowna and Calgary," the B.C. native told The Canadian Press.

"As we made it over to Eastern Canada it was nighttime, so Julie pointed out Ottawa, Montreal, Sherbrooke, Quebec City."

Thirsk says the Canadian cities "look like diamonds scattered on black velvet," adding that it was something special to share the view with another Canadian in orbit.

Halfway point

Neither of the two astronauts expects to make it back. But the football-field-sized space lab is only at the halfway point of its predicted lifespan: it's been tentatively given the go-ahead to continue being staffed until 2020.

The five international partners, including Canada, are looking at a number of options about what to do with the station after 2020.

One idea is to preserve several of the station's modules for use on other missions — including a visit to an asteroid by 2025.

Thirsk, a medical doctor, says there have also been a number of earthly benefits from the space technology.

"At the University of Calgary, for example, we do surgery using the Canadarm system," he said.

There have been a number of other spinoffs by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C., maker of the robotic arm. It is also building the KidsArm, which will operate at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.