Shuttle finale won't end space age, Hadfield says

As Atlantis counts down to its final mission, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield weighs in on what might replace the shuttle.

Canadian astronaut reflects on end of NASA’s shuttle program

The July 8 liftoff of the space shuttle Atlantis will be one for the history books, the last launch of its kind, coming 30 years after Columbia's maiden voyage in 1981. But it's by no means the end of the space age, according to veteran Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, despite what some observers are saying.

Shuttle launch status

The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch at 11:26 a.m. ET Friday. As of Thursday morning, NASA said there was a 30 per cent chance that the weather will allow the launch to go ahead.

"The clouds have rolled in. We’re starting to see some showers. We are expecting more of this for the next couple of days," said Kathy Winters, shuttle weather officer at a NASA news conference Thursday. "I wish I had better weather for you."

If the launch is pushed to Saturday or Sunday, there is respectively a 40 per cent and 60 per cent chance of favourable weather.

In the days leading up to the shuttle's final countdown, headlines have questioned the public's will to continue to push the frontiers of space travel. The Economist quipped that "Inner space is useful. Outer space is history." The New York Times story headlined " The End of the Space Age," said "Our technological energy is still immense, but it’s increasingly turned inward — toward communication, life-extension, and computer-generated adventure — rather than outward toward the stars." The  Chicago Tribune writes  "veteran former astronauts say the space program is in 'disarray' and fear the end of the shuttles could mean a permanent decline in U.S. space leadership as well."

But despite retirement of a space icon, Hadfield insists the sky is not the limit.

Hadfield was the first Canadian to become a shuttle mission specialist, a position he held on Atlantis in 1995. He says that far from being the end of the space age, the retirement of the shuttle simply makes room for innovation that will make space travel more practical.

He says the coming decades are full of possibilities, from the development of new spacecraft by both the government and private sector companies, to the ongoing research being done to send humans to Mars.

CBC News spoke to Hadfield in the days leading up to the final shuttle launch. Here are some excerpts.

CBC News: Some are calling Atlantis's last launch the end of an era. How are you feeling during these last days?

Col. Chris Hadfield will launch aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2012. During his six-month stay in space, he will become the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station. ((NASA))

Chris Hadfield: I don't view it as last days at all. It's just one of the many spaceships of the world and it has done extremely well. It has opened up space tremendously for humanity and very much for Canada and Canadians as well. 

But it's not the only game in town. In fact, on my next flight, I'm flying on a different spaceship with the Russians. And we have people permanently living in space on the International Space Station.

You know, there is brilliance in the space shuttle. It is the most capable vehicle ever built by humanity … but it's also the most complicated vehicle ever built by humanity.

Almost nowhere on Earth do we put the people with the cargo — like a big transport truck and a school bus all together. A more typical example is to build a vehicle for people, like a car, and then a truck to carry the stuff. That's what Russia has pretty much always done, and that's what the United States did prior to the shuttle. And it's the model we'll be going back to now.

But over the years. NASA's space shuttle program has become almost synonymous with space travel. What's the significance of its end?  

I think it's a great moment to look back at its accomplishments. We built the space station primarily using the space shuttle. Almost three quarters of everyone who has ever flown in space flew on the space shuttle.

I was on the space shuttle when we helped build part of space station Mir.

The shuttle's been a great invention, but it has been around for a long time. It's in the steam locomotive category, or Model-T. They were absolutely cutting edge, great, hugely productive vehicles of their time but we end up with new inventions and new ideas and we learn things from them and move along.

What have your experiences in space meant to you?

The opportunity to leave our planet, to look back and see our planet from the perspective of space, and to start to realize what we've invented — the capability that we have allowed for ourselves — that's a real perspective-changer.

(Note: To listen to Hadfield describe floating in space, click slideshow above)

What are some of your most vivid memories?

Hadfield the history-maker 

Col. Chris Hadfield has repeatedly gone where no Canadian has gone before. Here are some of his historic moments:

  • The first Canadian mission specialist aboard the Atlantis (1995)
  • The first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit (1995)
  • The first and only Canadian to board Russian Space Station Mir (1995)
  • The first Canadian to leave a spacecraft and float freely in space. Hadfield was the lead spacewalker who helped to install Canadarm2 (2001)
  • Hadfield is set to become the first Canadian to command a spaceship. The International Space Station will be under his leadership for part of his six-month stay in space (2013)

The space flight is a very rare experience. I've been an astronaut for 19 years and I've been in space for 22 days, so the time that you're in space is almost a time of hyper-awareness.

When we were on board the International Space Station, all of its main computers failed and the space station lost control. The space shuttle was the only thing that was keeping it in orientation and we actually had to go in and remove the main computer out of the space station and put a new one in — like doing brain surgery on the space station.

The richness of all those memories and where they're kind of leading us now, and the things we've learned from them, is something that I treasure daily and I'll definitely treasure for my whole life.

What question do most people ask you about space travel?

The most common question is: how do you go to the bathroom in space? That's what everybody wants to know. I answered it once at the Ontario Science Center and they posted it on YouTube. There have been millions of people going to look at my answer.

What would you say are Canada's most significant accomplishments in space?

Canada's biggest achievement has absolutely been the robot arms. They released the Hubble telescope and they have grabbed it and allowed us to fix it every time.

The Canadarm, the Canadarm2, and Dextre  — they built the space station. It couldn't have been built without [our robotics]. The fact that the world space community counted on us, trusted us to be good engineers, program managers, and business people … I think is a really good reflection of the decades of legacy we have in space. 

Why do you think people equate the end of the space shuttle program with the end of human space travel?

The shuttle is very visible and very well-known. It's iconic when people think of space travel, especially in North America. So when the space shuttle is ending, then of course a natural conclusion is: 'Well, jeez, maybe the space program is ending.'

But nothing could be further from the truth. We have permanently left our planet. We have people living off of Earth. And we have people travelling back and forth regularly using other countries' space ships.

What would you say to someone who doesn't follow space missions? What should they know?

There's all sorts of unmanned stuff going on that Canada's involved in, like studying the universe through telescopes and building things that are landing on Mars and orbiting Jupiter and Saturn right now. There's a big part of the industry that's involved in robotic exploration.

There are thousands of Canadians directly involved in human space flight. Some are living and working on a space station that was built by Canadian technology and is orbiting the world.

We recently hired two new Canadian astronauts that will be eventually flying in space, probably flying up with the Russians on their rocket ship, but maybe on the follow-on to the space shuttle. And who knows what lies beyond that? 

What other vehicles do you envision for space flight?

I think if I was a young Canadian now I would be looking at some of the commercial spaceships that are being designed.

The leading one now, I think, is built by a company called SpaceX. They've already launched  from Florida a capsule that's big enough to carry people. It orbited the world, came back in through the atmosphere and had a soft landing in the ocean off the coast of California. That's a pretty unprecedented thing for basically a startup commercial company to have done.

We've also learned more about Mars in the last 10 years than we knew through all of history. And I think the natural development is that we will, as people, go to Mars. And so I'd start looking at the VASIMR engine that is an ion-propulsion engine that might be able to accelerate us all the way to Mars and back, and get us there in a matter of little over a month. 

What advice would you give to a child who wants to grow up to be an astronaut in this day and age?

Three things: No. 1, you have to be healthy. You have to keep your body in shape.

No. 2 is you have to have a proven ability to learn things at a really complicated level. And one of the few ways to prove that is to get an advanced education.

And then the third is we don't just want to hire very healthy students, we want to hire people that can make decisions under pressure with good results.

I give that advice to all young Canadians. I think it will stand them in good stead whether or not they choose to fly in space.