Music from The Planets that launched a career

Last weekend the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra performed two concerts featuring The Planets by Gustav Holst. The concerts also served as the Calgary conducting debut of the CPO’s new music director, Rune Bergmann.

Holst’s The Planets is an orchestral suite with seven movements, each named after a planet and its corresponding astrological character. Written for a large orchestra, the music has a mysterious and eccentric sound that I love.

Besides being a great piece of music, The Planets also has a personal meaning for me. Many years ago, I applied to become a Canadian astronaut. It took several months and a variety of rigorous evaluations of the candidates by the National Research Council of Canada (the first home of the astronaut program) to reduce the 4,200 applicants down to 19 finalists. Following completion of all evaluations, the NRC selection committee met for the final time on a wintry Saturday afternoon to review their data and decide which of the finalists would be invited to join the six-member astronaut team.

It was December 3, 1983. Each of the 19 finalists had been asked to be home between 6 and 7 pm and wait by our telephone. Someone from NRC would then call and let us know the final decision – whether we had been selected or not.

While the statistical odds were against me, for some inexplicable reason I sensed that I might be chosen. Perhaps all candidates shared this same baseless feeling. The other candidates, by the way, were incredible people and I held them all in high regard. Most of them were older than me and already had significant experience in the space industry or research. Most of them had the traits to eventually become worthy astronauts.

At 6 pm, my anxious wait began. I put an LP on my turntable to relieve the tension. It was a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Gustav Holst’s The Planets by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. The music helped me relax. I presumed that NRC would first phone the chosen candidates so if my phone rang during the first couple of movements (Mars, Venus), then it would probably be good news. If I received the call later, then my dream of a career in space would be delayed.

As the last bars of Mars, the Bringer of War played, the phone rang and my heart jumped. I turned down the volume on my stereo, picked up the receiver and in the calmest voice I could muster, I said hello. It was Ray Dolan, head of human resources at the National Research Council of Canada. Ray asked how I was doing and if I had had a good day (chit chat – can you imagine?!). The suspense was killing me. “Ray!” I interjected. He laughed and then asked, “Would you like to become a member of the Canadian astronaut corps? We would love to have you.” Inside my brain, fireworks went off. I poised myself and responded, “Yes, it would be a privilege.”

I was curious who the other selected astronauts were, but Ray was not allowed to divulge that information. Two days later at a press conference in Ottawa to introduce Canada’s first astronauts, I learned that they were Roberta Bondar, Marc Garneau, Steve MacLean, Ken Money and Bjarni Tryggvason. Good choices – all solid people who have since become esteemed colleagues and dear friends of mine. Over our ensuing careers, we have shared much together.

The Original Six (I think spaceflight must’ve caused the gray hair, wrinkles and creaky joints that we all exhibit today.)

The Original Six (I think spaceflight must’ve caused the gray hair, wrinkles and creaky joints that we all exhibit today.)

So that is why Holst’s The Planets has a particularly special meaning for me. It is associated with a crossroad in my life; the launch of a career trajectory. It has become a favourite – my ‘go-to’ music when I’m having a bad day.

It turns out that this month the Canadian Space Agency is wrapping up another astronaut recruitment campaign – the fourth in Canada’s history. In the next few days, the CSA will phone two highly qualified individuals and invite them to join the astronaut corps. 17 finalists are vying for these two positions. Life for the chosen two (and their immediate families) will dramatically change. Their careers will become focused on training, exploration and space development – exciting stuff!

For the other fifteen candidates who will not be selected, the phone call from the CSA will bring heartbreaking news – akin to making it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals and then losing in double-overtime. The finalists are all impressive and passionate individuals who have invested much time and effort over the last twelve months in pursuit of their career dreams.

I will listen frequently to The Planets in the coming days and imagine future missions to Mars, asteroids and the ice moons of Jupiter and Saturn. I will envision leadership roles for Canada in the human exploration of the inner solar system as well as abundant future flight opportunities for Canadians.

3 thoughts on “Music from The Planets that launched a career

  1. Such a beautiful and heartfelt post. I can only imagine the moments leading up to that call, and I am certain much excitement followed. I sure enjoy your posts Bob.

  2. Sorry to be late with this reply, however, I found your description, Bob, of that time a few years ago now very poignant as I had joined the NRC Space Division only a year or so before the selection and the choice of the 6 remarkable individuals chosen also changed my life both in respect to my professional career as well as on a personal basis. And, yes, Holst’s The Planets continues to send chills up my spine with its mostly dark, brooding and somewhat mystical musical descriptions of places that continue to fascinate and enchant us.

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