I had a wonderful time participating in the National Research Council’s centennial kick-off event last week.
The National Research Council (NRC) is Canada’s primary research laboratory. Its purpose is to provide industrial and innovative know-how to help our nation address critical scientific and technical issues. NRC has a distinguished past – some of its earliest innovations include the artificial pacemaker, the development of canola, the Crash Position Indicator and the atomic clock. NRC has been the home institution to world-class luminaries such as physicist Gerhard Hertzberg (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry) and Harold Jennings (developer of the Meningococcal C vaccine).
Did you know that at one time the National Research Council was also home for Canada’s space science and space station programs? In fact, the birth of the Canadian astronaut program took place in 1983 when NRC recruited Canada’s first astronaut team (Roberta Bondar, Bjarni Tryggvason, Steve MacLean, Marc Garneau, Ken Money and me).
2016 is a milestone year for NRC – this is its 100th birthday. A special event to kick-off several months of centennial events was held last week. 1500 NRC employees attended the celebration in Ottawa and another 1000 regional staff across the country participated via live broadcast.
Since the Canadian space program is an important part of NRC’s heritage, the original Canadian astronauts were invited to join last week’s celebration (only Roberta was unable to attend). We participated in a panel discussion moderated by Isabelle Gingras, NRC Vice-President of Human Resources. Isabelle asked us about the early days of the program as well as astronaut training and our flight experiences.
I used the panel setting to describe selection of the first astronauts – a long and daunting process that featured many stages to winnow the 4,000 applicants to six finalists. Selection interviews took place late in the process at the imposing NRC headquarters building at 100 Sussex Drive. A dozen members of the selection committee sat on one side of a huge dark oak table in the council chambers and fixed their gazes on the interviewee who sat alone on the other side. The committee members were intimidating to the astronaut candidates since they represented Canada’s most accomplished space scientists, engineers and executives – people whom we had read about in books and magazines.
I had always thought it was good interview technique to demonstrate a sense of humour. Therefore during my hour-long interview I told a couple of discreet jokes. But both of my jokes fell flat. Not one person on the selection committee laughed or even cracked a smile. Their dour and flat facial expressions reminded me of the couple depicted in the classic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. I feared that the lack of reaction from the committee was an indication that my interview was going poorly and my candidacy was in peril.
Following my interview I talked to other astronaut candidates and learned that their attempts at humour had also failed. Months later we discovered that the selection committee had been admonished in advance by an interview coach to remain objective throughout the interviews and not provide any kind of feedback (including smiles) to the interviewees. Sounds rather outmoded, eh?
Marc also told a story about astronaut recruitment during last week’s panel. Due to a typo in one of his letters of reference, the selection committee had the erroneous impression that Marc had a drinking problem. How hilarious! Thank goodness Marc was able to clarify that he was not an alcoholic; otherwise he never would have been selected and flown our first space mission. Now wouldn’t that have been a significant and adverse aberration in Canadian history!
The NRC’s welcome for the former astronauts at last week’s centennial celebration was warm. Even though we have not been NRC employees for some time, there is still high regard amongst current employees for the space program and pride in being the birthplace of the astronaut program. NRC researchers, technologists and support staff worked so hard in the early years to launch our program, establish our training plan and conduct our first shuttle missions. Following establishment of the Canadian Space Agency in 1989, NRC has continued to be a valued participant in our national program.
It is a rare event for the original Canadian astronauts to get together. We are busy people with diverse pursuits. Although last Thursday’s reunion with my former colleagues was too brief, it was reassuring and heartwarming to see that after so many years we still work well together. The stories we told of the early days made me realize how rich and unique our experiences were. We shared a very special adventure.
It was satisfying to participate in the National Research Council’s centennial kick-off event. This year represents an opportunity to recognize the Council’s valued contributions to Canada. It is proper to highlight esteemed NRC employees of the past who were involved in the discoveries and innovations of the past 100 years and in the building of Canada’s early space program. We will look with pride upon the current researchers and staff, and anticipate their leading-edge discoveries.
Happy birthday, NRC!