By Kate Lunau - Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 0 Comments
A tour of the elite training facility that turns mortals into astronauts
From the outside, Building 9 at the NASA Johnson Space Center, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Houston, is nondescript. Inside, it’s like Willy Wonka’s factory, if Willy were a rocket scientist. The hangar-like facility is filled with robots, moon buggies and spaceship mock-ups. Robonaut, a humanoid robot with a golden head, sits next to Spidernaut, a robot prototype with eight arched legs. There’s an Orion capsule, and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. But what dominates the vast room is a full-size mock-up of the International Space Station (ISS), an Earth-orbiting spaceship built by 15 countries, including Canada.
One recent Monday morning, astronaut trainer Gwenn Sandoz waited there for Chris Hadfield, who will blast off from Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz in December, and soon after will become the first Canadian to take command of the ISS. Canada has invested heavily in the station, which has been inhabited by a rotating crew since 2000, but we only get to send so many astronauts there. For 20 years, Hadfield has worked tirelessly to prove himself in an astronaut corps dominated by the U.S. and Russia. Canada has paid its dues by contributing the robotics systems that built and maintain the ISS, finally earning a spot for one of its own at the controls of what Hadfield calls “the world’s spaceship.”
Sandoz knew her time with Hadfield was limited; this was his last week of training in Houston before the launch. At 10:15 a.m., right on time, he breezed in wearing a neatly tucked-in polo shirt—the unofficial uniform at Johnson—with the crew patch of Expedition 35, which portrays a moonlit view of Earth from the ISS as the sun peeks from behind it. Assigned to Expedition 34/35 in September 2010, he’s been training intensively in the U.S., Russia and elsewhere for the mission. It isn’t his first space flight, but it will be the longest he’s spent off the ground. Hadfield will be on the ISS until May, making him only the second Canadian (after Robert Thirsk) to do a long-duration mission.