A window on the life of Steve MacLean

Above: From left, York faculty and staff (plus partners and family) Gordon Shepherd, Berton Woodward, Lorraine Ng, Anthony Szeto, Hélène Yaremko-Jarvis, Gary Jarvis, Paige Murphy, Jeff Wright, Avie Bennett, Paul Bennett, Richard Fisher, Marlene Caplan and Ken Caplan

When York alumnus Steve MacLean finally flies into orbit aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, he can count on an extra measure of goodwill from a group of Yorkies who last weekend got a special insight into the triumphs and frustrations of an astronaut.

At the invitation of MacLean, the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, the York group flew to Cocoa Beach, Fla., to join in activities surrounding the planned launch of Atlantis, where MacLean will be one of six crew members who will help expand the International Space Station. The York people toured facilities at the Kennedy Space Center, attended a high-powered send-off reception – and then, like the astronauts, waited for the go-ahead that never came. With the storm Ernesto prowling the region, NASA finally decided to postpone the mission and wait for a better time.

Left: From left, Anthony Szeto, Gordon Shepherd, astronaut Julie Payette, Gary Jarvis and Hélène Yaremko-Jarvis at the send-off reception

That hardly dampened the York group’s enthusiasm for the journey, and the enterprise. While they were unable to watch the liftoff, “it was great to be part of the hoopla, and see where it all happens,” said Steve Dranitsaris (BA ’73), senior executive officer, Office of the VP Finance & Administration, who accompanied a group of former York gymnasts who remain good friends of MacLean, a national champion while a York undergrad.

To York chancellor emeritus Avie Bennett, who flew down with his Osgoode-educated son Paul (LLB ’82), the trip was “a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something I’ve read about and heard about” as well as a chance to “take pride in the activity and participation of a York alumnus.”

Steve MacLean

Right: Steve MacLean in training for his second space flight

What was clear throughout was the strong connection that MacLean, a board member of the York University Alumni Association, has maintained with York and its people. “He’s family to us – everybody knows him,” said Marlene Caplan, graduate program assistant in the Physics & Astronomy Program, Faculty of Graduate Studies, and a former member of the York Board of Governors. Caplan first got to know MacLean 30 years ago, when she was in a similar staff role and he was studying at York (for a 1977 BSc and a 1983 PhD). She also helped preserve seeds of an apple from a York descendant of the original apple tree said to have inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, which MacLean will carry aboard the shuttle.

Robert Robichaud (BA ’77, BSc ’82), one of MacLean’s old gymnastics friends, talked about how the group still sees MacLean regularly, and still gets together at the drop of a phone call. “We always hit it off, we always had a special bond,” he said. The MacLean he knows always “had the tenacity, the drive, the focus to see something through.” Robichaud, who watched MacLean’s first shuttle mission lift off in 1992, was one of seven former York gymnasts on hand. The others were Bob Carisse (BA ’79) and his wife Cheri, John Filion (BA ’77), Scott MacLeod (BA ’78), David Steeper (BSc ’79) and Debbie Woods. With them, too, was former York gymnastics coach and lecturer Masaaki Naosaki.

Right: Paul Bennett (left), Avie Bennett and Richard Fisher check out an interior mock-up of the International Space Station

Needless to say, York’s space scientists from the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering (ESSE), Faculty of Science & Engineering, were well represented in Florida. There were two professors of earth science: Gary Jarvis, currently associate dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and Anthony Szeto. There was Paige Murphy, a master’s student in ESSE, who entertains hopes of being an astronaut herself one day. And there was Distinguished Research Professor Gordon Shepherd, director of the Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS) and one of Canada’s leading space experts.

Shepherd has his own gratifying relationship with the shuttle program, which in 1991 sent aloft a satellite carrying the WIND Imaging Interferometer, or WINDII, for which he was principal investigator. Shepherd was very clear about the importance of the latest shuttle mission. “They haven’t done work on the International ST-115 mission patchSpace Station since 2002, a tremendous lapse in time. The station is only half finished at the moment, so it’s very important they get on with it.” MacLean, he noted, will help install vast new solar-power arrays. “It’s a primary power system that will allow them to have more astronauts on the station,” he said. “They’re very limited now in the number of people they can maintain up there.”

Right: Mission patch for the crew of the Atlantis mission, STS-115, designed by three now-graduated students in the York/Sheridan Joint Program in Design

Currently there are three astronauts aboard the space station, and the York group got a taste of how they live. They toured precise mock-ups of station modules, showing everything from instrumentation to shower and bathroom facilities (heavily dependent on vacuum suction). The relative roominess of the station corridors struck York’s 6-foot-3-inch chief marketing & communications officer, Richard Fisher. “There’s around seven feet of clearance there,” he observed with a smile.

The three York graduates who designed the patches for MacLean and his mission (see YFile, Aug. 25, 2006) – Graham Huber, Peter Hui and Gigi Lui (all BDes ’04) – also went to Florida for the launch, and visited the Kennedy Space Center. “In the gift shop we had the dubious pleasure of seeing the merchandising of the patches,” chuckled Huber. “But really, it was quite an honour when you see how much they are being used – pins, commemorative coins and all.  It’s a little part of history – we’re going to be on that wall forever.”

Left: MacLean’s children Michele (left), Catherine and Jean-Philippe with their mother, Nadine Wielgopolski, at the reception

On Saturday evening, the Canadian Space Agency hosted a packed pre-launch reception in a Cocoa Beach hotel, attended by Canada’s ambassador to the US, Michael Wilson, ex-astronaut and former CSA president Marc Garneau, current Canadian astronauts Chris Hadfield and Julie Payette, and MacLean’s wife Nadine Wielgopolski and their three teenage children. Having noted that the mission includes MacLean’s first spacewalk, Wielgopolski told the crowd her husband had suggested she “just use the same words his commander Brent Jett used – this crew is ready to walk the walk.”

In conversation later, she picked up the theme of MacLean’s deep roots at York. “He is very proud of York,” Wielgopolski said. “Everywhere he goes, when he has a chance he talks about York. It made him a good part of who he is now. He recognizes that, and the excellence of the teachers he knew there. And the camaraderie with the students, and with his former gymnastics friends, is very present in his life still. So it’s been an incredible experience for him. Ten years at York – you just cannot forget that.”

In a formal video message to the reception crowd, MacLean said: “On the fifth day of this mission, it will be a personal highlight for me to venture into space to conduct a space walk to help install the solar arrays. As we pass over Canada, I look forward to photographing geological formations and capturing the northern lights.” And, perhaps, giving a wave in the direction of York University.

This article was written by York publications director Berton Woodward, who also journeyed to Cocoa Beach.