The six-month spaceman

Robert Thirsk taking part in a press conference in Kazakhstan, shortly before embarking on his six month space mission last year. (Canadian Space Agency)

He has boldly gone where precious few Canadians have gone before and he stayed there far longer than any other Canuck in history.

Astronaut Robert Thirsk, MDCM’82, set a new record for Canadians in space last year when he spent six months aboard the International Space Station, serving as medical officer, taking part in dozens of scientific experiments and growing as a human being – quite literally in fact. In the weightless environment of space, the intervertebral discs along a person’s back expand, resulting in a temporary growth of about four centimetres.

Dr. Thirsk recently took some time to field questions from McGill News editor Daniel McCabe, BA'89, about his career, his recent space mission and his time at McGill.

You were part of Canada's original astronaut group and you've been a part of the Canadian space program for more than 25 years. What sorts of things do you imagine the next generation of astronauts will experience?

For the past quarter-century, human spaceflights have been confined to low Earth orbit. I am proud of our accomplishments there, especially our R&D achievements aboard the shuttle and International Space Station. However, the next generation of astronauts will venture to destinations elsewhere within our inner solar system. Within my lifetime, I envision the establishment of a lunar base as well as exploratory missions by astronauts to an asteroid or Mars. This is exciting stuff.

Space exploration has its share of naysayers - people who say the money could be spent on other urgent priorities. How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

Space exploration is a stimulus to national progress and is economically rewarding for Canada. We have focused our primary space activities into three strategic areas – communications, remote sensing and robotics – that bring social benefits to our citizens and profit to our space industry. For instance, the technology of Canadarm2 has been spun off to develop neurosurgical robotic systems. Another important benefit of our space program is instilling the ‘can do’ attitude in the next generation of our scientists, engineers and physicians who will address important societal problems.

You recently spent six months in space and you’ve done research on the effects of weightlessness on the human body. What would be the major medical challenges associated with launching a lengthy manned space mission - say, a trip to Mars? What would be the key to keeping the astronauts taking part healthy?

Most of humanity's space experience to date has been limited to low Earth orbit. Once we venture beyond the Van Allen Belts that encircle and protect the Earth, exposure of astronauts to ionizing radiation will be of greater concern. We must provide a means to protect future astronauts from the acute effects of radiation. For instance, a large solar flare could be lethal. We must also develop countermeasures against chronic exposure to cosmic radiation.

The psychological stresses on astronauts will also be of concern during a long mission to Mars. We will need to enhance our current psychosocial support tools to maintain the wellbeing and productivity of interplanetary astronauts.

In the time you were away from Earth during your recent mission aboard the ISS, what did you miss the most about home? Now that you're back on the ground, is there anything you miss about being in space?

Six months is a long time to be away from family and friends. I missed several family events such as birthdays. I also missed the sounds and smells of nature. Listening to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Waters of March on my iPod made me profoundly homesick for Earth.

Our onboard menu is nutritious and varied. But after eating freeze-dried and other processed food for many months, I longed for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Since we have no running water on the International Space Station, I savoured my first hot shower when I returned. It was a long one!

Now that I have returned to Earth, I miss my crewmates. They are incredible people. I don't expect to ever work again with a more capable, pleasant group. We worked synergistically to successfully accomplish a demanding set of mission objectives. And I will miss our lively dinner-time discussions about world affairs.

During your first space mission in 1996, did anything about the experience catch you off-guard? Did you find any element of space travel to be particularly difficult to get used to?

The quality of our training was very good and prepared us well for everything we faced in orbit. However, I do recall being mystified at bedtime when I saw star bursts and lightning-like streaks in my eyes. This was unexpected. I eventually learned that these brief flashes of light were due to incoming radiation particles striking my retina and exciting the rods and cones. I noticed these light flashes every few minutes just before falling asleep when the cabin was dark.

Years from now, what do you think you'll remember the most about your time in space?

I have a lifetime of memories. They include the stunning view of Earth from space, and the view of arriving vehicles such as the space shuttle. The space shuttle is surely the most beautiful and capable spacecraft of our era. It will be sorely missed when it retires later this year. My return to Earth in our Soyuz vehicle was a visual and dynamic spectacle – better than an E-ticket ride at Disney World!

What are some of the traits you possess that you think helped you become a successful astronaut?

My engineering and medical experience has served me well aboard the Space Station which is a sophisticated, high-tech facility. Spaceflight is physically demanding so health and a good state of fitness have been assets. Multicultural sensitivity and diplomacy are important qualities for astronauts. These stereotypical traits of Canadians are beneficial on long duration missions that include international crew members. Other important assets for any astronaut are a loving family, a supportive ground team and wonderfully talented crewmates. My family and colleagues make me look good.

Thirsk and fellow McGill graduate Julie Payette became the first two Canadians to be in space at the same time when they met aboard the International Space Station last July. (Canadian Space Agency)

Last year, you and Julie Payette, BEng’86, DSc’03, became the first two Canadians to be in space simultaneously when she joined you on board the ISS during her 16-day mission as part of the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour. You actually sat on the selection committee that chose her for the astronaut program. Do you recall what made her stand out?

Julie stood out from the other astronaut candidates in her determination to achieve life goals. At the time of her selection, Julie was accomplished in a variety of disciplines including technology, arts and communications. She had a passion for challenges and adventure, and loved to share this passion with others. Selecting Julie as an astronaut was a ‘no brainer’ for our selection committee. Her brilliant performance during two shuttle missions proved the wisdom of our decision.

You studied medicine at McGill and did your training as a resident in family medicine here. What do you remember about that period in your life?

My medical school classmates and I studied hard, but in our limited free time we also enjoyed ourselves and la belle ville. I recall some of our student parties at the McIntyre ‘Annex.’ I enjoyed playing intramural hockey, strolling around the campus, and running up the jogging path on Mount Royal.

During my residency years, I fondly remember some of my family medicine mentors including Drs. Ellen Rosenberg and Marie Yaremko. They were skilled physicians and friendly people. I enjoyed working at the former Queen Elizabeth Hospital; it had a sense of community that is not evident in today's mega-hospitals.

Your wife, Brenda Biasutti, BSW’83, is also a McGill graduate. Did the two of you meet at McGill?

Brenda and I met when I was a medical student doing a clinical rotation at the Montreal General Hospital. Some of our favourite places in Montreal included Mount Royal Park, the jazz club L’Air du Temps in Old Montreal and the city’s many great patisseries.

How does training to be an astronaut compare to training to be a doctor? Which one is harder?

Medicine and astronautics are similar in that both are problem-solving professions. Likewise, both training programs are long and demanding. I found the first couple years of medical school to be difficult as the large amount of knowledge I needed to memorize was like drinking from a fire hose. Astronaut training, on the other hand, was a bit more practical.

What is the hardest part of an astronaut's life? What's the best thing about the job?

Spaceflight is agreeably challenging. I couldn't ask for a more fulfilling job. My ISS crewmates and I performed over 100 scientific experiments in a variety of research disciplines. I especially enjoyed operating Canadarm2 to berth the Japanese HTV cargo vehicle to the Space Station. HTV is a beautiful and innovative spacecraft about the size of a London double-decker bus.

While flights aboard the International Space Station are full of adventure each day, the training prior to flight is long and intense. Training takes place at several international sites and requires us to be away from our homes and families for weeks and months at a time. It is a strain.