A Q&A with astronaut Robert Thirsk

Canadian astronaut challenges students to dream audaciously

Thirsk was the first Canadian astronaut to fly a long duration mission aboard the ISS.

Dr. Robert Thirsk’s career path led him out of this world.

Thirsk was the first Canadian astronaut to complete a long duration expedition aboard the International Space Station in 2009, performing multidisciplinary research and robotic operation for six months.

However, space isn’t a new domain for Thirsk. In June and July 1996, he flew aboard Space Shuttle mission STS-78 as a payload specialist.

During the 17-day flight, Thirsk and his crew performed experiments dedicated to the study of plants, animals and humans under space flight conditions.

At the Queen’s Space Conference held from Feb. 5 to Feb. 7, The Journal sat down with Thirsk to discuss careers in space, the tenacity of students and his awe when looking at the Earth from above.

Click here for our full coverage on the conference.

Q: How does it feel to be here with young hopefuls aspiring to break into the same field you once did?

A: When I was the age of these young women and men here, I had a passion to become an astronaut and to fly in space. And so, today, many years later, it’s my opportunity to encourage the next generation to do the same as well.

So, my message to the young professionals here is to follow their dreams, but also let them know that astronaut jobs, space jobs, don’t fall out of the sky and into their lap. You put a solid educational foundation under the dreams, and hopefully one or two of them will walk on Mars. So, we’ll see!

Q: What is the biggest hurdle to overcome in pursuing a career in the space field?

A: I think a lot of people don’t dream audacious dreams. A lot of people have limited visions that they follow and you never know what’s going to happen in the future. So, for example, when I was young I watched a program on TV called Star Trek, and it took place in 2300, and so some of the technologies that we saw on that TV program – Captain Kirk’s communicator, Dr. Spock’s transcoder, the food replicator – we thought all that technology’s 300 years from now. No, each of these technologies exist today, [waves iPhone] you know?

You can never guess what is just around the corner. So I don’t want people to be limited. I want them to think expansively and to consider those audacious dreams and follow them the best they can.

Q: What is the draw of space as a concept? What peaked your interest?

A: Well, you probably want me to say flying around a spacecraft like Superman, or looking out the window! The space business draws the best people, and the best organizations. Some of the objectives that we have in space development and exploration are, like I said a minute ago, pretty audacious. Putting people on the moon, doing research and development in a weightless environment.

I’ve had the opportunity in my career to work with the best people, in space and also on the ground, who pursue some pretty aggressive mission objectives. There’s no sense of fulfillment that’s greater than coming home after a mission that you initially thought was impossible, and having accomplished every single one of those objectives. Working with organizations like the Canadian Space Agency, working with organizations like NASA, has been a privilege for me. I’ve been very fortunate.

Q: What is the strangest question you’ve been asked about your line of work?

A: Well, I guess it usually comes from young people, and they want to know how you go to the bathroom in space. So, it’s actually a good question, because the young people are thinking about what the implications of living in a weightless environment are. You know, the way that you position yourself in space, the way that you take care of your body hygiene in space, the way that you prepare a work site, the way you eat food, the way you cut your hair, the way you brush your teeth, all of that has changed in space. It’s like living in a surreal environment. It’s like walking into a Salvador Dali painting.

So, the questions from young people, the amusing question of how do you go to the bathroom — it’s actually a good question, because they’re not taking for granted that you can do things the same way you do them on Earth.

Q: What is it like to come home after that?

A: You’ve probably heard that your body changes during space flight. Your heart weakens, you lose calcium from your bones, your muscles atrophy and weaken. Every single organ system in your body adapts to weightlessness, so coming back home is difficult. I felt not too well for the first couple of days back on Earth, motion sickness, low blood pressure. So that wasn’t fun, but you get over that and your body slowly adapts back to life back on Earth. It gets better quickly.

Q: You have seen spectacular things throughout your missions and flights. What leaves you the most in awe?

A: You know, the training for space flight is pretty good, and on both of my missions, I had 100 per cent confidence, and I thought I knew what to expect during the upcoming mission. I guess the thing that I wasn’t totally prepared for, although I talked to tens of astronauts, although I read lots of books, although I saw lots of movies, it was the view of the Earth from space.

You look down from the vantage point of orbital flight, and you see this beautiful blue planet down below, and you see deserts. You know, deserts, they’re brown, but they’re a hundred shades of brown. They’re a hundred shades of orange, they’re a hundred shades of red. It’s absolutely mind-boggling to look at. The blue of the ocean is my favourite colour now. It’s just, to see the sun glint off the ocean? To look down and see your home country, some of your home cities from space? It just sends a chill down your spine.

After you’ve been up there for several weeks, several months, your eye gets a little more discriminating and you start to see some of the things that human activity has done to our planet, and you get a little bit sad then, but I guess I was always an environmentalist before I flew in space. I certainly am an environmentalist coming back.

Q: Which kinds of human activity?

A: Clear cut forestry. You see ship captains emptying their bilge tanks out in the ocean. You can see the effects of global warming. One of our favourite features on the Earth is Mount Kilimanjaro. On my first flight I took a picture of Mount Kilimanjaro, with a huge glacier, a huge snow field on the top. My second flight it was quite a bit smaller. So, you’ll see that.

Q: What’s it like to be away from the people in your life for that long?

A: It was difficult. I’d say that, psychologically, the thing that distracted me the most during my last flight, which was six months, was missing my family. It’s hard to be a parent, hard to be a husband, when you’re physically not there. That was difficult. I missed my family, I missed my friends. I missed nature on Earth, because life on board a space craft is not like living at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel. It’s a little more rustic than that.

Q: What is it like to be living in such close proximity with a small group for that length of time?

A: Good question, because some crews have had different experiences. Our crew bonded together very well before flight and during flight as well, so we’re the deepest of friends now. I go out of my way to stay in touch with my past crewmates — in fact I saw a couple of them a couple weeks ago. When I review some of the videos, some of the photographs that were taken during our missions — [in] every photograph we’re laughing or we’ve got these big goofy smiles on our faces because we’re actually having a good time. When I had spare time, and I wasn’t looking out the window, I just wanted to be with my crewmates and share those experiences. 

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