For 10 minutes on Saturday, April 18, Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut currently onboard the International Space Station, addressed a packed gymnasium at Grey Mountain Primary School in Whitehorse.
Fifteen students from the school asked Hadfield questions about his experience on the shuttle and his life in space. Parents and other students listened as Hadfield’s voice faded into the room.
“I copy, loud and clear. Grey Mountain School in Yukon, Canada, this is Chris Hadfield.”
Hadfield discussed the sheer size of the space station, which is the equivalent of about five hockey rinks, how he stays fit, how long he sleeps (six to seven hours per night) and what he does to pass the time.
The space station is equipped with a treadmill and Hadfield said he also uses elastic bands for resistance workouts.
“Your body gets weak without the constant weight of gravity,” he said. “But you have to keep a towel handy when your exercise, otherwise the sweat floats around and sticks to the ceiling.”
He said he plays guitar and sings, and spends time looking out the window, “because the earth is so beautiful from up here.”
The call to the space station involved some intricate planning, says Ron McFadyen, vice-president of the Yukon Amateur Radio Association. An amateur radio operator in Italy was able to pick up the space station as it passed above his house, and relayed the call from the school to the ISS. There was a 10-and-a-half minute window of signal acquisition to signal loss, explains McFadyden. And the call was near the top of McFadyden’s achievements in his 50 years as a broadcaster.
“It could not have gone any better,” McFadyden says. “We practiced five times. The school did a great job getting everyone prepared for this.”
The call was made possible through Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS), a volunteer program aimed at getting students interested in space.
While the call was a first of its kind for the Yukon, Cmdr. Hadfield has been making similar connections with schools across the country.
“He’s done more public relations with the space program than anyone else,” McFadyen says. “He’s really generating an interest in space.”
The call came amid the school’s space learning module. Kier Hyde, a Grade 3 teacher at the school, helped prepare the students for the experience. Dressed in an orange NASA jump suit, emblazoned with his own Commander Hyde-field patch, Hyde said everyone at school has been bitten by the space bug.
“We said we’d do anything to make this happen, and we’re just so impressed with how everything went,” he says. “This is definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had as a teacher.”
The students also spent two weeks working with Whitehorse artist Leslie Leong to make two kid-sized space shuttles, while learning the curriculum’s space unit.
Hadfield revealed that he had the necessary supplies to stay on board for nine months. He also said the northern lights were visible, but sound was lost in the “vacuum of space.” The Great Wall of China is not visible but the Trans-Canada Highway is, and it’s one of his favourite landmarks to spot, he said.
Hadfield blasted into space on Dec. 19 and his return is expected around May 13, when he will re-enter the atmosphere onboard a Soyuz Russian rocket.
He took command of the space station on March 13, becoming the first Canadian ever to do so. He said that while the experience has been incredible, he’s looking forward to his return.
“It’ll be very nice to get home and give everyone a hug,” he said, “and eat some fresh food.”
His work while onboard the space station has brought international attention to the program. He frequently posts to Twitter, where he has nearly one million followers, and uploads photos of space along with his daily observations.
He has a slow internet connection onboard, he said, but it’s fast enough to check email and communicate. The current mission is the pinnacle of a 20-year career for the Milton, Ontario native.
“This is what I dreamed of,” he told the students. “I decided to be an astronaut when I was nine-years-old.”