The View From Above – Astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk

This profile of Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk was published in the Canadian Aeronautic and Space Instistute Log in December 1996.

He is a distinguished doctor, but the magic of space turns Robert Thirsk into a starry-eyed little boy.

“I knew I was doing something privileged, fortunate and unique,” Thirsk says of his 17-day flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia in June 1996. “My goal was to try to tell Canadians as much as I can about what it was like.”

The resident of Navan, a small town just outside of Ottawa, is uniquely qualified to do that. The man with the scientific mind has the soul of a poet. He describes the view of planet Earth suspended in the “inky black” of space as similar to the work of the Renaissance artist Botticelli.

“I saw Botticelli’s work when I visited museums in Italy. The contrast in colours is not definite, but subtle,” he says, adding that he saw that same subtle diversity of colours when he looked at Earth from the window of the space shuttle. “There are hundreds of shades of brown and green. The desert areas are orange and there are reds and yellows. It’s very much a beautiful planet. I was glad I could call it home.”

He adds that from space, he gained a new appreciation for the fragility of the Earth. “The atmosphere is very, very thin. If you compared the Earth to a basketball, the atmosphere would be like two layers of Saran Wrap wrapped around it. We need to preserve and protect it.”

Dr. Robert Brent Thirsk was a Grade 3 student when the course of his life was set. The catalyst was the historic 1962 flight of American astronaut John Glenn. “My teacher chose that as a theme to introduce students to space. I decided then to become an astronaut.”

That dream didn’t die, even though Canada did not have an astronaut program at the time. Thirsk says the thought of one day flying in space inspired his educational choices. He earned a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978 and a doctor of medicine degree from McGill University in 1982.

Thirsk did research in biomedical engineering during his years at MIT and McGill. He was in the family medicine residence program at a Montreal hospital when he received the news that he was one of six Canadians selected to begin astronaut training in December 1983.

Predictably, Thirsk’s reaction was elation, but he had a long wait ahead before his first venture into space.

“At times I was frustrated. It’s hard to call oneself an astronaut until you’ve travelled in space,” he says.

During that time, Thirsk was intimately involved in the space program, researching the effects of weightlessness on astronauts’ cardiovascular systems and designing an experimental antigravity suit. He regularly participated in parabolic flight experiments and was involved with a number of space medicine, space station and mission planning work groups. Just prior to his shuttle flight, he undertook a year of specialized training in medical practice and engineering research as well as Russian language training.

The long wait was over in April 1995. Thirsk, then an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, received news that he would be payload specialist on the spacelab mission due to blast off in June 1996. Yet more training took place at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

None of that training prepared him for intense excitement of travelling through space. He remembers waiting inside the Challenger shuttle just prior to blast-off, exchanging jokes with fellow crew members. Despite the levity, thoughts of the 1986 Challenger disaster, when the space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, resulting in the deaths of seven crew members, were not far from his mind.

“I thought of them, and of the chance that it could happen again and of the impact on my family,” Thirsk says, add that the odds of a space flight ending in disaster are estimated at one in 250.

Thirsk says these safety concerns are just part of the price his wife and children pay for his having what he calls “the best job in Canada.”

“They make the sacrifices. It’s not a nine-to-five job and the moving is tough on everyone,” he explains.

Thirsk deals with that by protecting his family time at his home in rural Navan, where he says there are wide-open spaces, great neighbours and no traffic. There is also the opportunity to tap maple sugar trees and build tree houses with his children.

He says his kids vary in their reaction to the excitement of having an astronaut father. “Lisane (9) very much understands what I was involved in. She was taken up with the wonder and excitement. However, son Elliott (6) would prefer his father became a farmer, so they could have more animals. Aidan was virtually a newborn at the time his dad launched into space.

But these varied reactions haven’t dampened what Thirsk describes as the “wonder, awe and magic” of space flight. And he is optimistic about the future of the space program in Canada.

“We’re a small country and we can’t do everything. However, we have found niche areas where we are very good, [such as robotics, remote sensing and communication satellites],” he says.

Thirsk is also sure that the human instinct to explore the unknown remains strong, carried by the “altruistic and very brilliant” people involved in Canada’s space program, adding that our vision is only constrained by funding. He predicts interplanetary space travel will come in the 21st century.

It is very clear that Thirsk will never lose his own excitement about space travel. He’s hoping to be a crew member on a second mission, where he will right the one regret he has about his first space mission.

“I didn’t spend enough time looking out the window,” he says.

Update: In 2009, Robert Thirsk realized his dream to return to space when he became a member of the Expedition 21 crew on the International Space Station  He announced his retirement from the Canadian Astronaut Corps in Oct. 2010. Thirsk  holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours).

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