Two minutes before the space shuttle Endeavour blasted into orbit on Aug. 8, Dr. Dave Williams and his crewmates closed their visors and turned on the oxygen in their spacesuits. Moments later, Williams – an adjunct professor of surgery at U of T – felt the rumble of the shuttle’s three main engines coming to life. When the rocket boosters ignited, creating seven million pounds of thrust, the rumble became what he calls “a dramatic kick in the pants.” Within minutes, the astronaut was hammered into his chair by three times the normal force of gravity. Eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the main engines flickered out, Williams was thrown forward in his harness and he was floating in the weightless realm of space.
During the mission to the International Space Station – his second space shuttle flight – Williams broke two Canadian records when he performed three spacewalks, spending 17 hours and 47 minutes outside the station.Working in the bulky spacesuit was both physically and mentally demanding, and he was often in close proximity to hazardous “no-touch” zones. As well as serving as the flight’s medical officer, Williams was part of a busy construction mission – replacing a faulty gyroscope, installing a new truss segment and assembling a module to allow space shuttles to draw power from the station. It was an exhausting 12-day journey, but William’s vantage point more than made up for the discomfort. “You have this panoramic view of the horizon of the Earth and the atmosphere,” he says. “It’s truly magnificent, it’s spectacular… there is a sense of magnificent isolation – even though you can hear people talking to you on the radio, you feel kind of alone in the universe.”
Although he would happily return to space, Williams’ priorities have shifted to the next generation of Canadian children who share his passion for exploration. When a seven-year-old Dave Williams first turned his eyes to the stars, Canada didn’t have an astronaut program and he was told his dream was impossible. “What I’d like to share with students is that when you get to those moments, don’t give up on your passion and your dream,” he says. “Anything that’s truly meaningful is not easy. It’s the paradox of life.”