University of Calgary

Unexpected View

Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 20:05.

Unexpected View

Favourite burger joints to hockey in Nairobi — two engineering grads reveal all.

Robert Thirsk
BSc’76, LLD’09

The University of Calgary’s 13th chancellor, former astronaut, physician, mechanical engineer and university alumnus, Robert Thirsk, plumbs outer space and his own psychological depths only to discover how deeply he loves planet Earth and certain burgers — but is a self-confessed hacker when it comes to golf.

OK, so it’s 9 a.m. in space — what does your work day look like?
"I would have been up since about 6 a.m. and had a coffee from an aluminum-foil bag (because all liquids get recycled aboard a space craft, the running joke was your coffee today would be mine tomorrow — that’s space humour!) and all of us would have been working since 7:30. Likely, you’re strapped into your module with your iPod hooked up to speakers, listening to music, with your procedures Velcroed to the wall. You’d have your headset on and you might be talking to Japan, probably turning knobs and handles while going through a procedure."

Then what?
"You stare out one of the portholes and are struck by the beauty of our planet. You’d look at the oceans and see 100 shades of blue. The deserts are 100 shades of brown and red, with 100 different textures. You look at Canada and it’s 100 shades of green. But, after you’ve been up there for a couple of weeks, your eyes adapt and you start to see the fine details. From 350 kilometres up, with an 800-mm telephoto lens, you can see the scars of clear-cut forestry. You can spot a ship emptying their bilge tank in the ocean. You can see topsoil erosion that’s choking rivers."

What was your biggest fear?
"Screwing up. Often, in space, there is no option for failure. When I perform an experiment in space, it’s been designed for five years by a professor here, whose PhD student is hoping to graduate with the data I bring home. So there’s pressure to get it right. When you do a rendezvous on a docking, you can’t come in too fast. If you put a hole in the hull of the space station, you’ve just killed three other people."

What do you dislike most about yourself?
"My nose. I was a wrestler when I was young and I broke it."

What’s left on your travel bucket list?
"Antarctica and South Africa. Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes so I’d like to see where he lived."

Who are your other heroes?
"[Fellow astronaut] Marc Garneau, for his attention to detail, his diplomacy and because he’s an eloquent speaker. [Hockey legend] Bobby Orr, who always shines the spotlight on his team- mates, and never himself. The politician John Manley, who has an incredible curiosity about the people he’s working with."

Do you cook?
"Yes, I am quite famous for my cheese fondue. And we have travelled a few times to Strasbourg [near the France-Germany border] where they make a stew called a baeckeoffe which involves using a ceramic pot. I know how to make that, too."

Favourite wines?
"We’re cheapskates when it comes to wine (which I like, a lot). We limit ourselves to $11 bottles (and less). Right now, Carbonieres and Malbecs are very good value ... but I’ve found a few Cabs, too. I’d say most wines in Ontario are over $11, so sticking to our wine budget is a challenge."

Did you ever have a craving for a certain meal while in space?
"As a chancellor, I know I am not supposed to endorse any companies, but there is a famous takeout burger place on 16th Avenue that always has a lineup ... I wanted one of those burgers."

Deb Cummings