On a tarmac set in the swamps of southern Florida, one of Canada's space pioneers returned to Earth last night on his final flight.
Marc Garneau, Canada's first man in space in 1984, and the rest of the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour touched down shortly after sunset outside Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center, concluding a successful 11-day mission to the International Space Station.
But while Mr. Garneau's space travelling days are now behind him, Canadian astronauts will perform increasingly challenging tasks in future missions.
The next scheduled to take off, Air Force Colonel Chris Hadfield, will become the country's first spacewalker.
Much like Mr. Garneau's just-completed mission, where the Canadian astronaut had a key role in setting up a giant pair of solar panels on the station, Col. Hadfield's flight in April will constitute a crucial, complex step in completing the station.
On three spacewalks, Col. Hadfield will deliver and install a two-armed mobile crane system, the first part in an elaborate Canadian-made servicing platform that's vital to future operations on the station.
"That's going to be quite a significant mission," Mac Evans, president of the Canadian Space Agency, said in an interview.
"I can't think of anything more exciting than seeing a Canadian astronaut walking in space, unfolding and attaching the Canadian robot arm on the space station."
The station is now so large that the Canadarm of a visiting shuttle cannot reach all its parts.
The crane Col. Hadfield will install is designed to grapple its way around the space station with its two articulated hands, swinging from one anchor point to another.
The system is part of the Mobile Servicing System, a Canadian package of robot arms and video vision system that will roam around the station's outside assembly and enable its residents to expand and maintain the structure through remote operations.
"It's important to realize that the International Space Station cannot be finished without the Canadian arms," Mr. Evans said. "The whole station design is centred around the Canadarm and the new arm."
The robotics will generate much ground-based activity at the Canadian Space Agency's St-Hubert, Que., headquarters, where crew members assigned to the station will be required to go for training in operation of the mechanical arms.
Giving a presentation about his coming mission at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto this fall, Col. Hadfield spoke of the sense of wonder he felt at space travel.
"No one's jaded by it. I don't know why you could be."
Col. Hadfield's flight is part of an aggressively paced schedule in the next four months that will see the delivery to the station of the 16-tonne U.S. lab module Destiny and of Leonardo, the first of the Italian-made logistics module, and the arrival of a new trio of residents aboard the space station.
The mission will also deliver Rafaello, the second of the 4.5-tonne Italian-made reusable modules used to ferry cargo requiring a pressurized environment.
Commanded by four-time space veteran Kent Rominger, the seven-man Mission STS-100 is slated for an April 19 takeoff.
Among those joining Col. Hadfield on board are Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov, Italian astronaut Umberto Guidoni and U.S. mission specialist Scott Parazynski, an experienced spacewalker who will be teamed up with the Canadian on the three sorties outside the space shuttle.
Col. Hadfield's feats already include being the first Canadian to fly as a full-fledged astronaut rather than a mere passenger, being the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm and being the only Canadian to board the Russian Space station Mir.
His achievements underscore the wide variety of assignments now handled by Canadian astronauts.
On Mr. Garneau's first flight, in October of 1984, he was just a payload specialist, a mere paying passenger who wasn't part of the crew. Mr. Garneau was on board only to handle Canadian experiments and had just two months of training, learning shuttle basics such as how to prepare meals and what to in emergencies.
Sixteen years later, he played a key role in the latest mission, operating the Canadarm to retrieve delicately a massive set of solar panels from the cargo bay, positioning that payload next to the space station and co-ordinating the activities outside the space shuttle during three spacewalks.