Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One last Jam Before you Go

 Dave Hadfield and his astronaut brother play music together on the eve of his space flight

At Cape Canaveral there is a beach-house. It stands facing the wide Atlantic, in a perfect loneliness amongst the dunes, a couple of miles from where the Shuttles used to Launch; its the sole relic of pre-spaceflight days. The tradition at NASA was for the Shuttle's crew to gather there 2 evenings before a Launch with a few invited guests or family, and relax over a barbecue and a couple of beers. I was there for both Chris' Shuttle flights. We perched on a rail on the deck, rollers crashing onto the beach a few yards away, and played guitar and sang songs for whoever would listen, but mostly for ourselves. Our other brothers and sisters joined in....

At Baikonur, there are no beach houses. Access is strict. (Quarantine in the old Soviet days was a Natural.) Other than spouses and children, few get close.

Still, during the journey here, I was hoping against hope. I had had a flu shot. I bought a digital ear-thermometer and took readings for 4 days, noting the results on a RosCosmos form. Upon arrival at the spaceport I was examined by a NASA doctor, who signed it. I was declared non-infectious.

But 3 days before Launch, the word came down: spouse and children only. Period.

My disappointment was huge. Chris and I don't talk every day, but we're close. As kids on the farm, 2 years apart, we were each other's playmate. We learned to drive a tractor together, make castles out of hay, ride a horse, ski through a Course, play guitar, sail a boat... we even dated sisters at one point. I didn't come to Baikonur to be a tourist. I came to see Chris -- support him in whatever way possible before he left, but I came to see Chris.

But it wasn't about me. I wasn't the Player here. I could recognize that it was appropriate for me to shut up, put a smile on, and join in with the friends and extended families. This was no hardship; they are without exception fine people. Chris has always had a gift for bringing lovely and interesting people into his life. I took Tours and meals and made new friends. But at the core, I felt sad.

Never mind, carry on, we had the next-best-thing. A room exists in the Quarantine building that is divided by a wall of glass. We filed in there 2 days before Launch. About 25 of us sat down, like in a big high-school classroom; friends and family and co-workers past and present. (You never saw such self-discipline. Nobody coughed. Nobody sneezed. No one blew their nose.) Chris was on one side. He held a wireless hand-mic. Another one was on our side.

We passed the mic back and forth through the crowd. Loud-speakers on each side amplified our words. We asked questions and made jokes. Chris was in great spirits. He laughed when we held up fake moustaches as we spoke. Some of us told a little story, some little touchstone to remind each other of another day. I mentioned how when we were little boys sharing a bedroom at the cottage we would pull our knees up, smooth the blanket over our thighs, and pretend it was a control panel on a rocket ship. We'd explore planets, run from alien monsters, defeat the space-pirates, find asteroids of pure gold, even "get the girl", although in those days we didn't know what for. I reminded him that in those adventures we always triumphed, gloriously, and he should therefore run the Space Station just like that. (He agreed, laughing.)
Taken from Quaratine. Chris chatting with friends and family via a mic, through the glass. Photo: Robin Hadfield

CHris talks to family through the quarantine glass. Photo: Robin Hadfield

The quarantine room. Photo: Robin Hadfield

Chris's family don fake mustaches when the speak to him through the glass of the quarantine building. Photo: Robin Hadfield
Hélene kisses her husband through the glass, while brother Dave turns away to give them privacy. It will be 5 months before she gets to hold him again. Photo Robin Hadfield

The allotted time passed quickly.  We all gathered against the glass for a group photo, first with fake moustaches, then without. Moist-eyed, we left the room. There was many a backward glance. Then as we donned our layers of clothing we cheered ourselves with, "Looks great, doesn't he?" and so on. And walked back to the Sputnik Hotel, leaning into the biting Kazahk wind.

But that night, after getting back from the restaurant, I get The Word: tomorrow I will be allowed past quarantine, and have half an hour with Chris. I am utterly surprised, and deeply, deeply pleased.

Next morning, one day before Launch, I am up early for an interview. (There's a NFB crew here and they'll film anyone.) In the afternoon our group leaves for a Tour of the local market and a museum. I stay behind -- the return time might possibly encroach on my session with Chris. I spend the time organizing my photos and notes.

At 16:45 I join Helene, Chris' wife, and she walks me over to the quarantine building. I deliberately freeze my head. I am told that the final Doctor's check involves taking my body temperature with an ear thermometer, thus no hood, no toque. (There is slight pain, but nothing falls off.)

Helene speaks Russian to the gate guard and gets us through. I am impressed. An escort meets us and we enter the building. Helene and I sit on a gurney in the Doctor's office, side by side. The thermometer goes in, the thermometer goes out. "Normal'nyy!" I breathe a sigh of relief . I do it through my nose, to prove I am not congested.

Chris comes out of a meeting. "Hey Brother Dave!" He looks good. Lean and healthy, focused but not anxious. He's carrying a guitar case. Aha... I know what's coming next.

We can't shake hands. Quarantine rules require a 2m distance. But we chat as we walk down a hall and find an empty room. A NASA facilitator hands me another guitar.

Helene has a camera and keeps it busy as we talk and play. Chris starts with a new lick he's figured out for a song we wrote together via email 2 weeks earlier. "Hang on, hang on," I say -- I've downloaded a recording app onto my iPhone and have forgotten to turn it on. The lick is great, and I get a bit of it locked down. I leave the unit on. This song will be on the album he's going to record from space.

We trade songs back and forth, like we always do. One of my tuning-pegs lets go and the guitar craps out, so with hand-wipes we trade his Seagull back and forth as well. We play Silent Night for Eleanor, our Mom, who always played it on the piano at midnight on Christmas Eve. And more family favourites. We play Big Smoke, which I wrote for his first space flight almost 20 years ago. We play Caroline, which is about the wife of a Voyageur, for Helene, so close by. Our bodies stay 2m apart, but our voices are very close.

The time vanishes in a flash....

Chris is called away. As he leaves I pass him a small message from our Dad -- I tell him to trust himself. He can trust himself, always. We lock eyes for a sec and he nods. Then he's gone, off to the next meeting. There's a wave.

Tomorrow is the big day. There's no guarantee it will launch. Even the Russians sometimes have delays. There are no guarantees at all.

But Chris is off, with a song. 

Dave Hadfield, brother aviator

Chris' wife Hélene is interviewed prior to lifting the Soyuz launch vehicle to a standing vertical position. Photo: Robin Hadfiled

Oh Canada.


  1. Hey, Dave, I enjoyed being at your house in Utopia a few years back at a house concert organized by Celine Audette. I still have your CD. Great that you and Chris can jam together on the ground and I'm looking forward to the celestial jam.

  2. Great read! Really showed what it was like to be the family of an astronaut. You and Chris seem like true soul brothers.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. Very touching. I'm very proud for Chris and his team.

  4. This is so touching Dave. What a wonderful gift to treasure. Let me know when the cd comes out, would love a copy. Celine