Next week, on his way to a Russian launch pad, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will pause briefly to relieve himself on the tire of the transport bus. He will be following a long-established Russian practice that dates back to the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space.
"You could call it a tradition, or superstition, but it serves a purpose … you are about to get into a rocket ship and you don't want to have a full bladder," an exuberant Mr. Hadfield said in his final media teleconference before he blasts off for the International Space Station.
Mr. Hadfield, along with American astronaut Thomas Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, are now undergoing final preparations at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch complex in remote Kazakhstan. They are currently in quarantine so they don't catch a cold or flu.
If everything goes according to plan, they will climb aboard a Soyuz rocket on Dec. 19 and within two days rendezvous with the space station.
The mission represents a major milestone for Canada's space efforts and a personal triumph for Mr. Hadfield. For the latter half of his five months in space, he will be the commander of the $150-billion orbiting laboratory. That will make him the first Canadian to hold the top space job.
"I have devoted pretty much my whole adult life … to getting to this position where someone would trust me to command what is, in effect, the world's space ship," Mr. Hadfield said in a recent Skype interview with The Globe and Mail. "It is both an enormous thrill and a great challenge to be asked to do this."
The coveted post usually goes to either an American or a Russian. Mr. Hadfield takes over in March when the current commander, American astronaut Kevin Ford, is scheduled to return to Earth.
The 53-year-old Mr. Hadfield is a veteran of two space-shuttle missions. The trail-blazing astronaut was the first Canadian to walk in space and first Canadian to operate the space shuttle's robotic Canadarm in orbit. He has also held a string of positions in which he has worked closely with the U.S. and Russian space agencies, gaining a solid understanding of their equipment and procedures. He has been involved in astronaut-training operations at both the Johnson Space Center in Houston and Star City in Russia.
The duties of the commander are many and start with team building and training years before the launch. But the job becomes critically important when there is an emergency, such as a major technical malfunction, a puncture in the hull of the station or a fire.
"If things go wrong, then my job as commander really comes to the fore," he explained. "I am in charge. My decisions are life and death. And what we do in the first five minutes is going to save our lives and save the space ship," Mr. Hadfield said.
Aside from the physical dangers, the commander must also be concerned about the crew's mental well-being.
"What I fear most is one of us has a family member that gets sick or hurt or dies while we are in space," Mr. Hadfield said. "That would be extremely difficult to deal with psychologically for the whole crew, specifically for the astronaut or cosmonaut that that happened to." Mr. Hadfield said he has already discussed such a possibility with the other crew members.
Daily activities will be packed with work duties, focused on maintaining the station and running about 130 scientific experiments, including five from Canada. Mr. Hadfield will be drawing samples of his own blood and taking ultrasound heart measurements of the other crew members as part of a Canadian study investigating the effects of weightlessness on the cardiovascular system. "I want to get as much science done as possible," he said.
Every day in orbit, each member of the crew must exercise for two hours to prevent bone and muscle loss in the weightless environment of space.
With station housekeeping duties, minding the science experiments and daily exercise, there are not a lot of free moments.
Even for his limited amount of leisure time, Mr. Hadfield plans a busy schedule.
"This experience is way too rich to keep to myself," Mr. Hadfield said. "I am planning to record and share this experience as many ways as I can. Take pictures, write music, write e-mails, use the phone on board, call people that I know, talk to the media, but also send a [tweet] as often as I can. I think as many people should see what is going on as humanly possible." (His Twitter address is @Cmdr_Hadfield)
"My hobby is music," noted Mr. Hadfield, who plays the guitar. For this mission, he has composed a song with Ed Robertson, a singer and guitarist in the Barenaked Ladies. While in space, Mr. Hadfield will record his part. "It's a very catchy tune," he said. "I hope people will like it."
And should Mr. Hadfield feel the least bit homesick during his five months in space, he has brought along tubes of maple syrup to provide a flavourful reminder of home.