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Walking on air

Floating alongside a space shuttle hurtling at 28,000 kilometres per hour, more than 400 kilometres above the Earth, is a dizzying, if not terrifying, notion. But for Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean, who performed his first spacewalk on a mission to the International Space Station in September 2006, it was a “phenomenal experience to be your own spaceship orbiting around the Earth.” There is no time for fear or distraction, he says. “If you make a mistake out there, it’s going to be your last.”

There were a few tense moments during MacLean’s seven-hour spacewalk. As he and American crewmate Daniel Burbank worked on installing solar panels on the space station, two bolts wouldn’t budge. It took 30 minutes to remove one of them, and by the time MacLean pried it loose, he had no feeling in his right hand (he later lost two fingernails). Sharply focused on his spacewalk, however, he managed to complete his task.

On his 12-day mission, MacLean became the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm2 in space. He also photographed geographical features across Canada to document the impact of deforestation and global warming.

He made his first space flight in 1992. Since then, he says, the icefields in Western Canada have shrunk, clearcuts have expanded and large tracts of western forest appear red from the invasion of the mountain pine beetle. Viewing our planet from space, says MacLean, “you develop an appreciation for the word ‘fragile.’”

That may also describe how an astronaut feels as he lands on terra firma, before fully recovering from zero gravity. “In the first couple of hours, you can’t stand up very well,” explains MacLean. “You can if you separate your feet like a lineman. You look like a duck when you walk, but if you bring your feet together, you’re going to fall over.”

For all his stellar accomplishments, MacLean credits his three teenagers for keeping him grounded. “One thing about space flight is that when you land, you feel invincible for a little bitů until you meet your kids, and they bring you back to Earth.”

Based at the Canadian Space Agency’s headquarters in Longueuil, Que., Canada’s chief astronaut will return to his hometown of Ottawa on April 16 and 17 to bring audiences into orbit as part of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society Speaker Series.

— Monique Roy-Sole
(photo: Canadian Space Agency)

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