Recently, Bob McDonald, science journalist and the host of CBC’s radio show Quirks and Quarks, was here at UTM to talk about spacewalkers, his novel Canadian Spacewalkers, and much more.
What exactly is the difference between an astronaut and a spacewalker? According to McDonald, the main difference is that an astronaut stays inside the spacecraft, whereas a spacewalker goes out of the spacecraft to explore space.
“An astronaut is someone who flies above the altitude of 10,000 feet,” he added.
McDonald said that anyone can apply to become a spacewalker.
“They just have to be strong and [should be] able to perform the tasks assigned,” he said.
Spacewalkers spend years in training to prepare themselves. In fact, as McDonald mentioned, NASA has one of the world’s largest swimming pools. They use the pool to simulate an experience similar to when the spacewalkers step outside their spacecraft and work while wearing a space suit.
Space suits are like snowsuits that can’t bend. Each space suit weighs around 150 kg. In fact, the space suits are so bulky that the spacewalkers need help putting them on. They are then lowered into the swimming pool, where a group of scientists monitor the suits to ensure that the spacewalkers have the right amount of air and pressure.
McDonald added that “each spacewalker [has been] assigned a specific task to do”. Their tasks can range from experiments to simple craft repairs.
“There have been occasions where spacewalkers have had to go out to do emergency repairs to the space station,” he said, also noting that spacewalks can last seven to eight hours, calling for a lot of endurance.
McDonald recently wrote a novel titled Canadian Spacewalkers, where he interviewed three renowned (and the only) Canadian spacewalkers: Chris Hadfield, Steve MacLean, and Dave Williams—the people who, he believes, “took [traveling to space] to the next level by putting on space suits and stepping outside into the void”.
When asked why he chose to focus his book solely on Canadian spacewalkers, McDonald said, it was “because it was a piece of Canadian history that had not been documented”.
“I knew that the experience of being outside, alone in the universe wearing nothing but a fabric suit, was a profound experience and I wanted [the spacewalkers] to tell their story. I was not disappointed,” he added.
McDonald has hosted Quirks and Quarks for 23 years.
“I have conducted more than 7,500 interviews, so it is hard to pick just one,” he said when asked about his favourite interview. He did say, though, that he particularly enjoys interviewing the Nobel Prize winners every year. “They are always surprised and excited,” he says.
McDonald has had several adventures, but his own “zero-G flight was one of the best”. While McDonald would love to go spacewalking, his passion remains science.
“Science is like a pair of glasses that you put on and look at the same world as everyone else,” he says. “But you see it in a very different way—you see it in exquisite detail.”