Monday, 17 February 2014

Canadians Should Be Proud of All Our Astronauts

Astronaut Robert Thirsk speaks after accepting honorary doctorate from Vancouver Island University, January 31, 2014. Chris Gainor photo

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's star turn as commander of the International Space Station in 2013 has deservedly attracted an unparalleled degree of attention, but his individual achievements also point to the fact that all of our Canadian astronauts are very special people.

This was driven home to me again on the last day of January when Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk came to Nanaimo to accept an honorary degree from Vancouver Island University. 

Thirsk was one of Canada's original astronauts, selected in 1983 and quickly chosen as Marc Garneau's backup for his historic first flight by a Canadian astronaut in October 1984. After the long hiatus caused by the loss of the shuttle Challenger, Thirsk finally flew aboard the shuttle Columbia for 17 days in 1996 in the STS-78 life sciences mission.

The launch of the International Space Station in 1998 meant that American and Canadian astronauts would have to work closely with Russian cosmonauts. Thirsk became the first Canadian astronaut to be qualified to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz ferry craft, and in 2009, he became the first Canadian to fly aboard Soyuz to the ISS and back, and the first to get a long duration stay on the ISS, in his case six months. 

In Nanaimo, Thirsk spoke eloquently about how his views of Earth from orbit made him into an environmentalist. From space, the atmosphere that all life on our planet depends on is just a thin sheath. Increasingly, he said human activities are visible from space, and this underlines how human activities in one place can affect the environment on the other side of the Earth.

Humans are becoming increasingly interdependent on many levels, Thirsk said, pointing not only to environmental and political activities, but to technological advances  and changes in our financial system.

A number of years ago, I saw Thirsk speaking about the topic of exploration. He told the story of a kayak journey he took retracing the footsteps of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who in 1793 became the first European explorer to cross North America by land to reach the Pacific Ocean. 

Thirsk said his readings of Mackenzie's travels convinced him that Mackenzie possessed many attributes needed by explorers, including determination and leadership. If Mackenzie had lived today rather than in the 18th century, he would have made an excellent astronaut, Thirsk added.

Canadians still have much to do, exploring the frontiers of science, technology, medicine, and space. “Exploration,” according to Thirsk, “is a Canadian core competency.”

Thirsk has demonstrated his skill as an explorer, and so have other Canadian astronauts, including Hadfield and Garneau, who now is an active Member of Parliament. Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette blazed the trail into space for Canadian women, and Steve MacLean, Dave Williams and Bjarni Tryggvason have had impressive careers as astronauts and in their lives since leaving the astronaut corps.

Thirsk, a medical doctor like Bondar and Williams, now has a leading role in directing Canadian medical research as vice president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Today, Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian Forces pilot like Hadfield, and David Saint-Jacques, a physician and astrophysicist, are in training for their first flights after having joined Canada's astronaut corps in 2009. Like their predecessors, both have a long list of accomplishments even as they await a flight assignment.

Ken Money, who was selected for the Canadian astronaut corps in 1983 but never got to fly in space, had established himself as a pioneer in research about the effects of space travel on the human body even before his astronaut training. 

Over the years, I have encountered people who fell just short of being selected for the Canadian astronaut program, and they have gone on to be top flight researchers in medicine and other sciences. 

Canadian astronauts, whether they are well known like Hadfield or not, are widely respected for their skills and judgement both inside and outside Canada's space program. They are all very special and accomplished people, even when you don't take their space flights into account.

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