Jack Knox: Third mission in space, another first for Hadfield

When astronaut Chris Hadfield blasts off for the International Space Station next week, tucked behind his head in the cramped Soyuz capsule will be a brand new wedding ring for his wife, Helene.

At some point he wants to toss the ring into the weightlessness and snap a photo of the floating band for Gwen Walter, his mother-in-law in Saanich.

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If he times it right, Hadfield says, he'll be able to get lower Vancouver Island in the background. "I really like that part of Canada," says the former Royal Roads Military College student.

It will be tricky getting the shot, though. In space, the world flashes by at eight kilometres a second. Canada goes by in 10 minutes.

Hadfield was on the phone Tuesday from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where he's waiting for the Dec. 19 launch of a mission that will take him to space for five months.

Hadfield, American astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko have been parading around the quarantine area in commemorative T-shirts sent to them by Walter, who markets space-related memorabilia.

Walter thinks her son-in-law is, well, out of this world. "He's a very good family man and a very good husband."

It will be Hadfield's third space flight. He flew on the shuttle Atlantis in 1995, becoming the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in space. In 2001, he became the first Canadian to do a space walk. Next March, in another first, he'll take command of the space station and its crew of two Americans and three Russians.

The 53-year-old's family is flying in from all over the world - Helene from Houston, their three grown children from China, Germany and Ireland - for the launch. Walter is content to save the $10,000 cost of a trip to wintry Kazakhstan, will watch the takeoff from Saanich instead. She also admits to "a little trepidation" as her son-in-law prepares to strap into a Russian rocket.

For Hadfield, the prospect is "little-boy exciting." As kids back on the farm in southern Ontario, he and his brother would lie in their beds in their darkened bedroom, pull their knees to their chins and pretend to be astronauts. Next Wednesday, he'll squeeze into the Soyuz, pull his knees to his chin and pilot it on a two-day trip to the space station. "It's surreal."

Hadfield plans to follow the cosmonaut tradition/superstition of getting a haircut two days before launch, and of getting out of the bus on the way to the launch pad to pee on the tire, just like Yuri Gagarin did in 1961. "It's a good idea. You're about to get into a rocket ship." Don't want a full bladder.

Once aboard the space station, the crew will conduct more than 130 experiments relating to everything from climate change and the collection of dark matter to cardiovascular behaviour and the mechanics of human balance. Happily, a Vancouver-made guitar is already aboard, providing Hadfield with his favourite way to relax. ("He is laid-back when he's off-duty," Walter says. "He likes to sing and play guitar.")

Long-duration space travel can bring anemia, muscle loss and a condition similar to osteoporosis, so exercise will be crucial, Hadfield says. "You don't even have to hold your head up in space. That's how lazy you could be." Without exercise, the spacemen would be incapable of even standing once back on Earth. "When you come home, you don't want to be a spineless jellyfish flopping on the ground."

After years of preparation for the flight, all that seems to concern Hadfield is what he's leaving behind. "What I fear most is that one of us has a family member who gets sick or hurt or dies while we're in space." In 2007, Hadfield helped Dan Tani's family after the astronaut's mother died in a car crash while Tani flew in space.

Here on Earth, Walter, CEO of a promotional products company called Kala-mari Enterprises, is focused on turning out mission memorabilia - clothing, patches, pens and so on - through Expedition35.com.

"Business is very slow because the news is slow," she says. She thinks it will pick up as Canadians become more aware of Hadfield's adventure and learn more about the son-in-law who makes her proud.

"I guess he's got all the right stuff."


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