Bob McDonald talks to Canadian astronauts in his new book

by Gregory Beatty

Bob McDonald - photo courtesy NASA

scienceBob McDonald
Canadian Spacewalkers
Douglas & McIntyre

While it might be true that in space, to paraphrase Alien, no one can hear you fart, they can definitely smell it.

When CBC Radio Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald interviewed the three Canadian astronauts who’ve done spacewalks for his new book Canadian Spacewalkers, Chris Hadfield handled that question. He was the first Canadian to walk in space, installing Canadarm 2 at the International Space Station in 2001. Steve MacLean followed him in 2006, and Dave Williams holds the Canadian longevity record with three spacewalks totaling 17 hours 47 minutes in 2007.

Since the pressure in a spacesuit is one-third normal, Hadfield replied to McDonald’s query, gas in your stomach obeys Boyle’s law and expands. You can probably imagine what happens when it does, and you later return to the spacecraft and remove your helmet.

Fortunately, he added, there’s ventilation with filters so the gas eventually dissipates.

In Canadian Spacewalkers, McDonald grills the astronauts on their pre-mission training and space experience, and also gets input from NASA spacesuit technician Robert Knight. Included are tons of great photos. Really, how could there not be? You’re 400 kilometres up, orbiting Earth at 29,000 km/h, fast enough to witness 16 sunrises and sunsets a day. Then imagine stepping out into that beguilingly beautiful, but unimaginably dangerous, environment in a spacesuit — with nothing but a tether and small nitrogen-powered jet pack as emergency back-ups.

Canadian Spacewalkers will be released on Oct. 18, and ahead of that, I spoke with McDonald from his Victoria home.

This book is a natural extension of your work as a science journalist. But what was your initial inspiration?

This project arose out of the idea that there have only been three Canadians to put on spacesuits and go outside the International Space Station. And they’re among about only 100 people on the planet who’ve done that. It’s a rare experience, a profound experience, and they all had great stories to tell. I thought Canadians should know about it.

You do more than interview them. You also describe doing astronaut training, like riding the Vomit Comet where you experience short periods of weightlessness. From the sounds of things, you did well. Do you think you would’ve had “the Right Stuff”?

I was inspired as a kid in the late 1960s and early ’70s watching the moon landings, just like they were. Just touching a bit of what they did in their training, like the virtual reality lab or the centrifuge that spun me around, I realized just how hard it is. I didn’t lose my lunch. I’m happy about that. But looking back on it, I’m not sure I would’ve made the cut. I would’ve given it a good shot, but it’s really tough, and I have the utmost admiration for anyone who does a spacewalk.

And who knows? I might still have a chance to get into space on one of those tourist flights if they can get them off the ground before my hair gets too grey.

Space travel has lots of romance attached to it, but the technological challenges are huge. How important was it for you to convey that to readers?

You see these astronauts up in space, they’re floating around like Peter Pan. It looks so effortless when they’re outside waving at the camera and handling these big objects. But it’s hard! That spacesuit doesn’t want to bend, and they’re fighting against it. They’re disoriented; their brain is struggling with what’s up and what’s down. If you move too fast, or use the palm of your hand [to touch something] instead of your fingertips, you end up tumbling in the opposite direction. Astronauts go through as much training as Olympic athletes to have the strength, discipline and intellect to do what they do.

The astronauts also talk about the psychological impact of their spacewalks.

Everyone who has been to space has been profoundly moved by Earth’s beauty, and its apparent fragility and smallness in the universe.

One thing I found interesting was how affected they were by the blackness of space. It’s one thing to look out the window of a spaceship, and quite another to be outside by yourself with nothing between you and death but the fabric of your suit and a bubble helmet. Even during daytime, if you turn your back on Earth and look out into the universe… They described it as the deepest, most velvet black you could imagine. And they thought about how far that goes, and how Earth is just this little ball falling through this incredibly deep blackness.

Earth truly is an oasis, or Garden of Eden, in a very hostile universe. So to think about all the political pet peeves we have with each other, and how we shoot and behead each other, and burn each other’s buildings down. It’s stupid, and from space it doesn’t make sense.

It’s the same with the environment. We’re facing some serious challenges as a species. We know our activity is affecting the climate, it’s affecting other animals. The extinction rate world wide is greater than after the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. We have to make some hard decisions about how we do things — how we move ourselves, get our food and water, keep ourselves warm. I think space can help us do that, and these astronauts certainly felt that in a profound way.

You speak at the end of the book about the future of space travel, with Mars being our next goal. How far away do you think we are?

I think it will probably happen before 2050. But it will be a few intrepid explorers. It takes seven months to get there, and Mars is a very hostile place. There’s no oxygen in the air, there’s no ozone layer to protect you from ultra-violet radiation, and it’s bloody cold. Every night, it goes down to minus 70 or 80 degrees.

So if we go there, and we will, it’s going to be a long time after that before we have colonies. We need new rocket technology, we need warp drive. If we get that, like in Star Trek, we can start hopping among the stars, and find other Earths out there. Even with our fastest rocket today, it would take us thousands of years to reach another star. That’s why we need to take care of Earth. We can explore in the solar system, but we’re not going to move anywhere.

And [much of that exploring] is going to be done by the business community. NASA has already started to do that, handing over responsibility to SpaceX and Boeing with them just a paying customer. The government is getting out of routine spaceflight just like it got out of aviation after WWII and handed it over to the airline industry. What will happen, I think, is the business community will go back to the moon, and visit asteroids, and see what resources they can mine.

After meeting the three Canadian spacewalkers, how would you describe them as people?

All the Canadian astronauts, not just these three, are very impressive. They’re all different in their personalities, and they all came to be astronauts in different ways. But all of them say the same thing: if you have a dream, follow it. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you came from; just keep yourself pointed in the right direction, don’t give up, don’t make excuses, and you’ll get somewhere that will satisfy you. So they’re terrific role models for young people.