07/21/2011 05:31 EDT | Updated 09/20/2011 05:12 EDT

Atlantis Return Signals An End - And A Beginning For Canadians


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- LONGUEUIL, Que. - As the sun began to rise over the Canadian Space Agency south of Montreal, a handful of officials watched on a giant screen as the sun set over the U.S. space shuttle program with the return of Atlantis.

It was still dark when the shuttle touched down for a final time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida early Thursday morning, capping 30 years of flights.

Eight Canadian astronauts have flown 14 times on the U.S. fleet of five space shuttles.

But Canadians are not only looking back at this country's participation in the program, but also toward a new generation of space missions.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was at his home in the Johnson Space Center near Houston when Atlantis landed, says it's time to move beyond the shuttle.

"It's an old vehicle, it has tiny computers, it was designed in the '60s and built in the '70s," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"They need to get away from the shuttle to free up the workforce and finances to build another vehicle and get another one going — it's just a natural cycle."

Hadfield, 51, says there's still much to be done on the International Space Station now that its construction has been completed with the help of the American shuttles.

"We've put this huge laboratory up there and now we start to use it for the next 10 or 15 years, so that is the immediate future of everybody's space program — including Canada," he said.

With the shuttles' retirement, a Russian Soyuz space capsule will carry Hadfield to the orbiting space lab in late 2012.

The Sarnia, Ont. native will spend six months on the space station and will take command for the second half of his visit.

The Soyuz will be used for all flights to the space station during the next few years until a replacement is developed.

Several commercial companies in the U.S. are already working on that.

Hadfield insisted that Canadian space exploration isn't stopping with the retirement of the shuttles.

He noted Canada is involved in the development of a rover heading to Mars around Christmastime to seek new life.

Canada is also contributing to research satellites exploring the solar system and it's studying the Earth from space using various satellites.

"We'll look at all the opportunities that are out there, and as we have been doing, we'll just keep right on in the thick of all of it," he said.

"And we will do the best we can with the money we're given — just like we've been doing."

Pierre Jean, the CSA's director of space exploration, says Canada has always relied on other partners to actually launch off Earth.

"We don't have a launcher program and naturally over the years we've worked with the Americans. We've been part of many shuttle missions (and) the shuttle was the backbone of transporting all the hardware and systems to the space station."

But Jean noted that the Japanese, the Europeans and Americans all have resupply vehicles that have flown or will fly to the space station in the future.

"So the future looks good," he said.

Danielle Cormier, a supervisor at CSA's small mission control centre, has been involved with at least 90 per cent of the shuttle missions since April 2001, regularly communicating with the astronauts.

She recalled a close call in October 2002, when astronauts almost rammed the Canadarm2 on the space station into Atlantis.

"From the ground, my team actually stopped them from doing it," Cormier said.

"That was a moment when there was a little bit of terror there which makes you remember it very clearly."

Cormier, who has worked at the agency since January 1997, says the astronauts on the station got the robotic arm too close to the shuttle, which was docked at the station.

The 30-year shuttle program is credited with ushering in numerous innovations, including a miniaturized heart pump, metal alloys that sparked a new line of golf clubs, better baby formula and a golden age of Canadian robotics.

The final flight of Atlantis carried one of three remaining Canadarm robots, which will eventually end up in a U.S. museum.

But the original robotic arm, which was taken into space in 1981, was recently retired with the shuttle Endeavour and will be returned to Canada later this year.

Marc Garneau, who became the first Canadian to go into space when he was launched aboard the shuttle Challenger in October 1984, says the return of Atlantis marked the end of an era "where we did incredible things."

But the astronaut-turned-politician says the all-purpose space vehicle was still too dangerous even if it made 135 flights.

"Two tragedies out of 135 flights is too many," he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

During 30 years of shuttle flights, 14 astronauts died in two accidents. Challenger erupted into a fireball during its launch on Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1, 2003, as it returned to Earth.

Garneau, now 62, took two other flights on American shuttles — both times on Endeavour — in 1996 and in 2000.

"My life is intimately connected to this experience and I think the pride will remain because I was part of this program," he said.

The former head of the Canadian Space Agency says he would love to see an all-Canadian robotic mission to Mars.

"I'm confident if Canada gives itself the challenge of a Canadian robotic mission to Mars — aside from the launch vehicle — we would be able to do the rest."