Robert Brent Thirsk has been in orbit twice now representing Canada on the International Space Station, and he treasures his memories of the rare privilege of seeing Earth in all its glory from space.
The scientist-astronaut now has another special keepsake memory: a visit to Rideau Hall in Ottawa to meet with Canada’s Governor General Daniel Johnston for his induction as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
“Today is a special day,” Thirsk said, following the official presentation ceremony. “It’s caused me to reflect on all the people, the institutions that brought me to this place, here, where Canada recognizes the value [of what] I and my astronaut colleagues are doing in space. I’d just like to say thank you to my neighbours, my friends, my teachers, my professors, the institutions that I work for, for placing value on what I do and supporting my family and supporting me.”
It’s been a long and winding road for the astronaut-adventurer. Originally from British Columbia, Thirsk attended public schools in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba as his family moved about. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary, completed his Master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), then followed up with M.D. studies at Montreal’s McGill University along with a Master’s in Business Administration from the MIT Sloan School of Management. During his first space station mission he received another honourary degree from the U. of Calgary and his fellow astronaut, Koichi Wakata, placed the convocation cape on him as part of the ceremony, making Thirsk the first person ever to receive a university degree while in space.
Thirsk joined the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) astronaut program in 1983, working on projects related to space medicine, including leading a team who designed and tested an experimental “anti-gravity suit” intended to help astronauts deal with the effects of extended spaceflight missions on their cardiovascular system. As a scientist-astronaut, Thirsk and his fellow Canadians like Chris Hadfield and Roberta Bondar, represent the next step in space exploration: regular and ongoing research and development work inside a functional space station. He is quick to list the practical reasons why Canada needs to play an active part on the Final Frontier.
“There are many reasons why we support space (exploration) in Canada,” he said. “First of all, economic. There are a number of jobs and revenue that it would bring to Canada through our companies. Typically, the Canadian taxpayer invests on average $250 to $300 million a year in funds to the Canadian space program. Canadian space industry typically has two to three billion dollars of revenue every year from the niche areas of skills and technologies we have here in Canada. So, it’s a no-brainer. Canada makes money from our investment in the space program.”
With two ISS missions under his belt, including being the first Canadian engaged in a long-duration posting, Thirsk is a veteran on the CSA astronaut roster.
“My wife says that’s it,” he said, laughing, regarding the likelihood of a space station hat trick for him. “But if someone offered me an opportunity, I would give it a go.”
He smiles when he considers the most common question he gets from children during the past few years of public appearances he’s made as a Canadian astronaut at schools and other events.
“‘How do you go to the bathroom in space?’” he said, grinning. “It’s actually a question that I welcome, because it tells me that the kids are thinking about how some of these bodily functions work in a weightless environment. The answer, of course, is you don’t have the effect of gravity to pull waste away from the human body in space, so we have to create some other forces instead. We use large fans to create convection (currents) on the bottom side of the body and that works — most of the time — to make bodily hygiene work. But sometimes a little manual help is required.”
Older children and young adults also pose several practical questions when meeting with Thirsk. Practical, and positive questions.
“I find, actually, that in the same way that I, as a teenager, was inspired by the Apollo moon program, today’s teenagers are inspired by some of the things that my colleagues and I have done in space.
“Probably the most common question from a teenager is ‘What do I need to do to prepare to pursue a career as an astronaut?’ My answer is: Number one, get an education. Education is the launch pad for dreams. Number two, get as much team work skills developed as you can. An astronaut works with five other crewmates in orbit and hundreds of other people on the ground. If you don’t have the teamwork skills, you won’t be a good astronaut. Thirdly, take care of your body. It’s really tough on the human body to fly in space, not just the launch and the re-entry, but also what happens to the body in a weightless environment.”
When Thirsk talks about the importance of education as part of a future astronaut’s training, he also notes that includes skills training in trades like welding and electronics. There is a place up in space for people who are good with their hands.
“Absolutely. All astronauts have a deep academic and research background. But once you get in orbit, life in space is determined by how good you are with your trade or your hands-on skills. So if you’re not comfortable with a wrench in your hands or a soldering iron, then you’re probably not going to be a great astronaut. You’ll need some hands-on skills, but you also need a passion to be an adventurer as well.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of Prelude to Mars and other works, is Thirsk’s favourite science fiction writer. While he agrees that a return to the Moon is still part of the agenda for humanity’s space exploration, a Mars colony will be the next major endeavour.
“The advantage of Mars is that it has an atmosphere, and we know there is quite a bit of water there available as well. So that will make developing habitats on Mars a lot easier as well than on the Moon. But I do think the first thing that will happen is setting up a permanent research base on the Moon that will be staffed, temporarily, by workers. But I think the first colony will likely be on Mars, but that’s still a few decades from now.”
Whether or not Robert Thirsk ever gets his third ISS mission, he still has the memories of his time in space, both the mundane and the majestic, to treasure during his future years on Earth.
“Everything in space seems to take a little bit longer. A lot of the things that we take for granted here on Earth, like checking email, showering up, using the washroom facilities, and such, take two, three times longer in space.
“But the wondrous part has gotta be looking out the window. Our favourite activity, when we’re not working in orbit, is looking out the many windows that we have aboard the space craft at this beautiful blue planet we have down below. For the first few days you look down on the planet, you just see the beauty. You’re struck by the majesty and the beauty of the landscapes. But after you’ve been up there for a few weeks, your eye gets a little more discriminating, and you can start seeing the effects of human activity on the planet, environmental destruction, and that’s kind of sad.”
But Thirsk has great hopes for the future.
“Think about some of the early Arthur C. Clarke works where he talks about international cooperation, he talks about the interpersonal relationships. That is very accurate. That’s the reality today, if we’re going to do difficult projects in space, such as the International Space Station, or going to Mars — almost by definition has to be an international endeavour.”