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Canadian father and son score ringside seats to final NASA shuttle launch

Space enthusiast Ray Bielecki and his son Brett, from Newmarket, Ont., are shown in a handout photo.

Anna Bielecki/The Canadian Press/Anna Bielecki/The Canadian Press

Battered by the pain of cancer surgery, Ray Bielecki received something precious from his young son several years ago: the desire to play again.

Together they immersed themselves in a world of space, science and NASA shuttles - blasting off into the cosmos through books and cardboard cutouts.

This week Mr. Bielecki will give his son something back.

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After five cancer-free years, he will take the boy on a trip to Florida for a close-up view of the final U.S. space shuttle flight, the liftoff Friday of the shuttle Atlantis.

About one million people are expected by the beaches, roads and highways around the Kennedy Space Center, including several Canadian astronauts. Atlantis will retire to a museum after its final flight, bringing an end to the 30-year American shuttle program.

A smaller, luckier crowd will have ringside seats.

Among those ticket-holders in NASA's special viewing area will be the father and son from Newmarket, Ont.

Their journey to that spot began five years ago.

Mr. Bielecki says he had to have three ribs removed after a tumour was discovered on one of them. It was diagnosed as chondrosarcoma.

Now 58, he recalls the acute pain in his torso. He also remembers the effect his son Brett, now eight, had on his recovery.

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"When I woke up I felt like I was in a car accident, 52 staples later. But I saw my son and it meant a lot to me," Mr. Bielecki said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"When I came out of it and when Brett would say to me, 'Dad, let's play, let's do this,' and I just came back from work and I was tired ... I'd get off the couch right away because life's too short and life's a gift - and he's the gift in my life."

Special memories were forged by father and son under the basement stairs of their home, which they transformed into a play area.

That's where they put together a spaceship with cardboard, computer parts and twinkling Christmas lights, and where they read space books and watched space movies on DVDs.

"(It was) just spending father and son time together," he said.

Then Brett's friends started coming over, boys and girls aged seven to nine who shared his fascination with the cosmos.

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So Mr. Bielecki decided last May to form the Astronauts Kids Space Club where, once a month for two hours, the youngsters would get together for a mission.

The group has gone on field trips to planetariums, visited universities, listened to space experts and even launched model rockets at a nearby farm.

He collects educational material wherever he can get it and has even received small financial contributions from major aerospace companies in Canada and the U.S.

"These are going to be the future engineers, future scientists, astronomers and astronauts," Mr. Bielecki said.

"I'm half a century older than my son, but he keeps me young and revitalized and wanting to help him and other kids learn... I found a mission. He's created a mission for me, without even knowing it."

Mr. Bielecki says it was one of their invited speakers, an American astronaut, who helped get a good seat for him and his son to watch the final shuttle launch.

Leland Melvin, who is also NASA's associate administrator of education, recently spoke to the junior space club via Skype.

So Mr. Bielecki decided to give him a call to see if he could make "a little boy's dream come true."

He had already booked the flight and hotel room in Florida but all tickets to the special viewing area near the Kennedy Space Center, known as the NASA Causeway, were sold out.

"We were willing to go 10 miles down the road, on a beach or up on a rooftop just to feel it," Mr. Bielecki said.

Then the good news came.

"He (Melvin) contacted me and said, 'You got two passes, you're coming to the causeway to watch the launch and you're going to be a guest of the NASA office of education.' "

Both Mr. Bielecki and his son were thrilled when they got the word from Mr. Melvin, a former football player who once trained with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.

Eight-year-old Brett Bielecki is perfectly aware of how special the moment will be.

"I never, ever saw a shuttle launch before and now this is my big opportunity to see one before they're cancelled," the boy said in a phone interview. "They're never going to launch a space shuttle again after that one."

He says he wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

He has mixed feelings, however, about whether he also wants to become an astronaut.

"I do, because I would like to really do spacewalks and interesting stuff up there; and I don't, because it might be kind of dangerous and might explode."

Those fears stem from the fact that 14 astronauts died in shuttle accidents over the last three decades.

Space Shuttle Challenger erupted into a fireball during its launch on Jan. 28, 1986. And the shuttle Columbia broke apart on Feb. 1, 2003, as it returned to Earth.

But this week the Bieleckis may be thinking of one of the space program's great successes - one with a deep connection, both to his family and his country.

Zygmunt Bielecki, Ray's father and Brett's grandfather, was an electrical technician and part of the team at Spar Aerospace that built the original Canadarm.

The robotic limbs have helped move objects on each of the shuttles and performed countless tasks at the International Space Station. There is one aboard Atlantis.

Ray Bielecki remembers his father coming home and saying NASA officials had visited his workplace to announce the new Canadarm project.

"Dad passed away a year before Brett was born and I wish he would have met dad," he said.

"These two guys would have been the best at electronics and gizmos... I see my dad in Brett."

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