Grads in space: duo makes history

Photo courtesy of NASA
Photo courtesy of NASA

By Neale McDevitt

For astronaut and McGill alum Julie Payette, six is a charm. After poor weather conditions forced NASA to scrub three previous attempts to launch the shuttle Endeavour earlier this week, and hydrogen gas leaks thwarted two other attempts last month, Payette (BEng’86) and her six crewmates finally blasted off just after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16.

The 16-day mission will see Endeavour dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday, July 18, where Payette will join another McGill grad, Robert Thirsk (MD’82). Thirsk has been aboard the ISS since May 29 as part of a six-member crew whose six-month mission will test the endurance of the human body in space. This marks the first time two Canadians – and two McGill grads – have been in space at the same time.

Although it looked like Endeavour’s launch might be delayed yet again because of unfavourable weather, the shuttle was cleared for take-off and enjoyed what appeared to be a textbook launch. However, NASA officials later confirmed that one of the shuttle’s video cameras captured eight or nine pieces of foam insulation falling from the external fuel tank and hitting Endeavour’s fragile heat shield near where the right wing meets the fuselage.

Following their first night in space, Endeavour’s crew awoke to the song “These Are Days” by the band 10,000 Maniacs, a wake-up call targeted especially for Mission Specialist Tim Kopra. NASA’s website reported that the astronauts spent much of their first day inspecting the shuttle’s thermal shield using the shuttle’s robotic arm and the Orbiter Boom Sensor System – a 100-foot laser-tipped boom. The crew also was hard at work preparing for Friday’s rendezvous with the ISS.

Among the homegrown items Payette has brought along with her are 23 CDs, including at least one by an artist from each Canadian province and territory, water from the Great Lakes and the three oceans bordering Canada, and a Montreal Canadiens jersey autographed by Maurice Richard.

Both Payette and Thirsk are on their second space mission.

To follow Endeavour’s mission go to