Chris Hadfield readies to command space station

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is learning to fly a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and perform appendix surgery, as well as refreshing his spacewalking and robot-wrangling skills, before taking command of the International Space Station in 2013.

Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield is learning to fly a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and perform appendix surgery, as well as refreshing his spacewalking and robot-wrangling skills, before taking command of the International Space Station in 2013.

Hadfield, 52, will become the first Canadian commander of the space station during his third mission in space. He'll be the second Canadian astronaut to undertake a long-duration space mission, after Bob Thirsk.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield hopes will be the lead spacewalker on two or three spacewalks during his mission at the International Space Station. He hopes to write and record a collection of songs from space. (Emily Chung/CBC)
During the six-month stay, Hadfield will be the lead spacewalker on two or three spacewalks and he hopes to write and record a collection of songs from space.

He will co-pilot a three-man crew up to the space station aboard a Soyuz in November 2012 with Russian space agency commander Roman Romanenko and NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, joining NASA's Expedition 34. He will take over command of the space station in March 2013, when Expedition 35 begins with the arrival of NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin.

Hadfield spoke to CBC News Friday in Toronto, during his last few weeks in North America before devoting himself to overseas training for the mission. Read an abridged version of the interview below, or listen to the full audio.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you're up to for the next year?

For the last several years and culminating in six months in orbit next year, I've been training for my third space flight. This one is almost in a category completely different than the previous two, specifically to live in on the space station for six months, to command a space ship and to fly a new rocket ship.

Flying a new rocket ship in Russian — that takes a large amount of study and training and a lot more practice and detail work than most people would think.

The space station is an extremely complicated place and I need to know everything about it. If you include spacewalking and of course all the robotics and the vehicles that come up and you grab with the robotics and then attach, it's a huge living, functioning spaceport and multinational laboratory. I guess I'm the superintendent of all that and the port director.

We run all the experiments on board and there are typically a 100 or 120. I have to get trained as a medical technician and cardiologist, electrocardiogram-type person and be able to do ultrasounds and pull teeth and take out an appendix. So there's a lot of medical and scientific training.

And then finally, I'm the commander, so I am fundamentally responsible for the lives of the other people on board and the health and longevity of the space station. I need to bring six people back happy, healthy and feeling like they've had the best six months of their life.

So is that a lot different than the training that you've had before?

The training is different from a shuttle flight fundamentally [where] you're a crew of five or six or seven and you're together in the same office every day and you train together.

For the space station, you get assigned to a spaceship crew and then for years, you train by yourself. I go to Russia and I spend the winter in Russia in a classroom by myself with a sequence of instructors learning the entire system completely on my own. And then go to Japan, do the same thing, go to Europe, do the same thing. And only occasionally do you actually overlap with the people you're going to be in space with. So it's years like a grad student in a foreign university.

Now that I'm in the last 14 months of it, I'm with my crew a lot more.

There's only three of us that are really launching and going to spend the next six months together. Roman Romanenko lives in Russia. He only comes to the United States for specific training. We only go to Russia for specific training. It'll only be in the last month or two that we truly see each other every day, then we go to space, spend six months together and then the day we land, we split up.

For the Soyuz, you mention you're driving it. You're going to be the pilot.

I don't want to exaggerate what's going on. Myself and Roman Romanenko fly it. He's the commander. But if Roman gets appendicitis, I am completely responsible for flying the Soyuz.

And during a regular flight, he and I fly it as a cooperative pair. So I'm completely qualified, I have to qualify just like he does for everything: for manual rendezvous, manual docking, undocking, redocking, for all of the different entries, all the failure cases for all the manual entries that we might have to do to come back into the atmosphere. He and I will share the responsibility for flying it. Fundamentally, it's his spaceship, so I'm expecting him to do the critical phases.

But I will do some of the flying. It's more like maybe co-pilot.

As far as commanding the space station, how different is that from your regular duties on the space station?

It's in addition to. I still have all the regular duties of fixing things, running things, doing space walks, running the arms, all the other things. But in the morning and at the end of the day when we're looking at what we're going to do today and what we got done today and what we're going to reprioritize, that will be up to me, of course, working with mission control.

Hadfield gave a talk in Toronto and signed autographs for young fans Friday. (Emily Chung/CBC)
But it really comes to the fore if things go badly or if we lose communication with the Earth. That's when it falls completely on my shoulders, if we have an emergency. Our three big emergencies are fire, loss of pressurization or contaminated atmosphere. Any of those things in a spaceship are very deadly and time critical. Everybody's trained, but I'm the commander of the ship, and it's up to me to decide.

But it's also [that] I'm looking out for the health and the welfare of the crew through the whole time. It's up to me to set the tone and assess and help people out so that problems don't develop. So I'm somewhere between water carrier and quarterback and coach, all three.

You're the last scheduled Canadian flight into space...

I'm the next scheduled Canadian.

Do you have any special responsibilities to set up the Canadian space program or keep it going for the next little while?

I think so. We have two new astronauts, David St-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen. I think it's a very large part of my responsibilities to give them as much of what I know and get them as involved as possible in this expedition so we don't start from zero when I'm done.

And I've done that to a great degree already. I've made Jeremy Hansen our crew support astronaut. He comes to Russia, he trains with us, he will be working in mission control, he does the underwater training, diving with us. He'll be the person we talk to on the ground. He's the one who's going to help take care of my family while I'm in space.

And with David, he's working on robotics. I have him working on one of the robots that's coming up when we're there. And I'm hoping that he will be a crew support astronaut after Jeremy.

So I'm doing everything I can to get all the on-the-job training for them that I possibly can with just that in mind because if I can pass the baton , fully lit to them, then I've done a better service for the Canadian Space Agency, for those two guys, but also for the Canadians that follow.


Emily Chung

Science, climate, environment reporter

Emily Chung covers science, the environment and climate for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry from the University of British Columbia. In 2019, she was part of the team that won a Digital Publishing Award for best newsletter for "What on Earth." You can email story ideas to