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First Person: Dave Williams

Astronaut brings Canadian perspective to space travel



Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams headed into space aboard the shuttle Endeavour on Wednesday, Aug. 8,the 119 th space shuttle flight and the 22 nd flight to the International Space Station.

Since Wednesday’s launch NASA has discovered a gouge that penetrated the thermal tiles on the belly of the space shuttle and the mission has been extended three days. Endeavour is now scheduled to undock from the space station on Aug. 20 and land Aug. 22.

The mission is also likely to be the last time a Canadian astronaut will go into space for some time, as the U.S. winds down its shuttle program. Pique reporter Clare Ogilvie caught up with Williams by phone in Houston, Texas, where he lives with his Air Canada Captain wife, Cathy, and his two kids Olivia, 9, and Evan, 13, before take-off.

This is the second time Williams, 53, has been in space, a mission he has waited 10 years to complete after his dream was repeatedly delayed.

Williams performed his first space walk on Saturday, as he and fellow astronaut Rick Mastracchio replaced a faulty altitude control device on the International Space Station. The two are likely to have to do another space walk to repair thermal tiles on Endeavour that were damaged during last week’s launch.

Williams said prior to the mission he hopes to break the 14 hour and 54 minute Canadian record for the longest space walk.

Williams is the first Canadian to live and work in both space and the ocean after he became an aquanaut and lived aboard NEEMO, NASA’s undersea facility off the coast of Florida.

He comes by his love of exploration honestly as his father was an avid mountaineer, climbing Mount Garibaldi in 1939. In fact Williams has taken an Alpine Club of Canada patch into space as one of the 10 mementoes he is allowed to carry on the mission.

He traveled to B.C. many times before joining NASA’s space program and of course has a tale or two to tell.

Williams: “Can I tell you my Whistler story? I mean everyone has one don’t they?”

Pique: Of course, we’d love to hear it.

Williams: “Truly I love Whistler, it’s a great place and I have been there many, many times going back to the ’70s. But I was there in about 1984, I had just finished medical school, and Cathy and I were out skiing and they were just building the condos at the base of the south chair. We looked at them and we said, ‘we should buy a condo.’ So we go and we look and we say, ‘Oh, we can’t really afford to.’ They wanted $90,000 for them.

We go back the next year skiing and the same condo is $135,000 and so we say, ‘OK, this is it. We are on a mission.’ We looked at a bunch of places and we found this three-storey house, four bedrooms, sauna in the basement and they wanted $235,000, I mean only $235,000. Can you believe it? So we looked at each other and we said, ‘We really can’t afford it,’ so we didn’t buy it.

So yeah, I love Whistler, and that’s my story. What more can I say.

Pique: Let’s go from memories of Whistler to your memories of astronauts. What’s your first memory about space travel?

Williams: “I remember watching it on TV as a kid, the original Mercury (1958-1963) astronauts and the Gemini (1965-1966) astronauts.

I was thrilled with the concept, but never thought it was possible because Canada only had a non-human program. But now it is possible and it could very well be that your kids, or someone else’s in Canada will be part of those missions, which go back to the moon or on to Mars.”

Pique: When you see the earth from space what goes through your mind?

Williams: “When we learn geography in school we typically see a geographic atlas that has names of countries or states and provinces, but from space when you look back at the earth you don’t see all those demarcations between countries. It truly makes you realize what a small planet we live on. You can see the effects of pollution on the earth and it reminds me of how important it is for all of us to take care of our planet. There is nothing quite like being in space listening to Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World or John Lennon’s Imagine and you just sit there captured by all of this.”

Pique: So what music are you taking on this trip?

Williams: “This trip I will be taking a number of CDs from various Canadian artists… It is nice to be able to bring the CDs back and say to the artists, ‘during my mission I was listening to your music and it was a great source of inspiration.’”

Pique: What do you do in space when you are not working?

Williams: “Usually what we do if we are not busy working is look out the window. It is unbelievable. When you are there and you are looking out the window it is just so incredible it is really, really amazing.”

Pique: Do you get to exercise in space?

Williams: “Yes. We have a little cycle odometer, like a stationary bike at the gym, and I can honestly tell you I have cycled all the way around the world and it only takes me 90 minutes. Earth folks are a little slower. I am actually flying with one of Rick Hansen’s cycling gloves from when Rick went around the world.”

Pique: Have you thought of taking anything form the 2010 Olympics?

Williams: “It would be great to do that. To me what is exciting about the Olympics is that it is all about making dreams possible and having worked at the 1976 Olympics, when you are there and you get to talk to the athletes that sense of making their dreams possible is what we experience when we fly in space and it is just so incredible to be part of the whole thing.”

Pique: What excites you about this mission?

Williams: “What really excites me about this is (the message I want to give to kids). I… have kind of achieved my dreams but the message I would like to leave kids with is not necessarily that they have to be an astronaut, it’s more about finding their dream. For a lot of kids you ask them a question like, ‘so, do you have any dreams,’ and they look at you like… what are you talking about. I (tell them to find) what makes you passionate, what drives you, what makes you really excited, and then think about how you can pursue that dream and… achieve those goals.

So often in life when we talk to other people and we share our dreams people look at us and say, ‘no, no you can’t do that sort of thing. That is not a good idea.’ But really the whole message for kids is to find what you love doing, pursue it with incredible passion and desire and don’t take no for an answer. With good luck, patience, and persistence maybe it will all work out.”

Pique: Are your kids going to be astronauts?

Williams: “I don’t know, they seem to change their minds with the day. The funny thing about being an astronaut in the Houston area is that it is not really a big deal because this is where all the astronauts live. So when you go to your local elementary school the kids say, ‘oh we want to talk to someone exciting like a firefighter.’ Astronauts are just another mom or dad doing their jobs.”

Pique: There is a risk when you go to space how do you handle that?

Williams: “I think there are risks in everything we do and the critical element in exploring space is to be able to manage risk. We manage risk, we don’t take chances.

Basically the whole approach to the program is to lower the risks to as low a level as we can achieve.

Pique: This will be your first chance to do a space walk. Can you tell us about it?

Williams: “I am very excited. Can you just imagine it? You are going 25 times the speed of sound and you stick your head out of the airlock and look down at the earth below you. It will be incredible.

Canada plays an incredible role in missions like this. We have the robotic arm on the space shuttle, we have the robotic arm on the space station, and Canada has also developed a boom sensor system that we are using to inspect the bottom of the space shuttle.

For me it is a real thrill to be Canadian recognizing that we would not be able to accomplish a lot of the tasks on our flight if it were not for the robotic technology that Canada has provided.”

Pique: If you come undone on the walk how are you rescued?

Williams: “If for whatever reason you became untethered on the back of the suit itself we have the life support system and on the back of that is the SAFEVA, the simplified aid for EVA rescue. It’s basically a jet pack and you can reach down and pull out the hand controller and fire jets to fly back to the space station. If that fails we would undock the space shuttle and the shuttle would come and get you.”

Pique: What do you eat in space?

Williams: “Well, you have space food and the best analogy is to think of the type of food you would have if you were going backpacking, like lots of re-hydratable stuff, though some of it is hydrated already and we put it in an oven to warm it up. All of our drinks are all crystals that we re-hydrate. One of the most popular drinks that I like is apple cider. I like drinking Kona coffee so I will have coffee in the mornings and cider in the daytime.”

Pique: Do you crave anything?

Williams: Oh yes you do, its bizarre actually. Normally I am not a big macaroni and cheese person at all. In fact I might go for four of five years before I might eat it. Well the last time I was in space I had some and I thought, wow, this is really good, so everyday I was eating macaroni and cheese. Then at the end of the mission I was developing a craving for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake so (that was) the first thing I asked for when I landed.

Usually you prefer spicy foods so beef jerky is nice to have because not only does it have protein it has all the spices on it. A lot of people fly (up with) wasabi paste. It would be great if we could figure out a way to fly sushi and keep it fresh.”