Audrey Vermette, Director of Visitor Experience at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, contacted me a few weeks ago. She pointed out that the past months have been challenging for many of us. Looking forward to the new year, the Museum wishes to bring a bit of hope and encouragement to Canadians by kicking off 2021 with a month of special online programming around the theme of Inspiration. She asked if I could answer a few questions about my career and what motivated me to follow the path I took.
I have certainly been fortunate in my career. I was privileged to work with exceptional people who inspired me; and I’ve seen and done things that have altered my perspective of our world.
I immediately replied to Audrey that I’d be pleased to pass on my thoughts. Here are my answers to her Month of Inspiration questions.
How did you get started/interested in your career as an astronaut? What inspired you?
I grew up in the fast-paced 1960s. It was a wonderful time to be young. We had inspirational leaders with global outlooks who believed that we do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
World events helped to form my interests. The dawn of the space age, for instance, filled me with wonder. Only eight years after the first human ventured into space, two people landed and walked on the Moon. Amazing! My fascination with spaceflight was furthered inspired by TV shows like Star Trek and movie’s like 2001: A Space Odyssey. They helped me imagine what deep space exploration could look like – humans boldly going where no one had gone before.
The space program motivated me to study science, mathematics, engineering and medicine. My parents, teachers and professors also influenced my educational ambitions – nurturing my sense of wonder and encouraging me to stretch my capabilities.
From all these influences, I pursued a career in exploration, innovation and education. I was selected as an astronaut by the Canadian Space Agency and flew my first mission – a 17-day flight – aboard the space shuttle Columbia. I later launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station and successfully completed an ambitious six-month expedition with talented crew mates.
A memorable scene from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey
What was your biggest challenge in getting there? How did you surmount it?
Astronauts are expected to perform at a high level. Every space task must be performed correctly and quickly since we will often have only one chance to get it right. This high level of performance doesn’t happen without considerable training.
Completion of the training program was my biggest challenge. Training agreeably took me to the limits of my physical, mental and emotional capabilities on a regular basis. The first few years of astronaut training are like drinking from a fire hose – massive amounts of new information must be acquired by rookie astronauts. We learn how to operate spacecraft systems like propulsion and life support; how to perform specialized tasks like spacewalking and robotics; and how to function as a team member and leader.
There has never been a space mission that has unfolded according to its pre-flight plan. Spacecraft equipment sometimes malfunctions and unforeseen mission events (known as contingencies) occasionally occur. Astronauts therefore need to be ready for anything. In the later years of our training program, we spend hundreds of hours in simulators preparing for possible bad days in space. It’s not enough to train until we get it right; we need to train until we can’t get it wrong. This level of training prepares us well for all phases of a mission from launch to landing.
Participating in winter survival training in Star City, Russia
Who inspires you? Did someone inspire you during your career?
Several former astronauts have inspired me. Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau had an operational mindset and was technically excellent. He was good at avoiding distractions that could take his attention away from the important details of a mission.
Another exemplary role model for me was NASA astronaut Bob Crippen – the pilot on the first shuttle flight in 1981 and the commander on three others. Bob had a remarkable ability to recognize and deal with problems. He always seemed to be thinking a few minutes ahead of everyone else. As he launched skyward on the shuttle, he had little time to enjoy the ride. He constantly scanned the cockpit displays and anticipated the next possible failure. He foresaw its impact and what his immediate response should be. This kind of foresight is an essential astronaut trait that we call situational awareness.
I served as backup for Marc Garneau’s 1984 shuttle mission STS-41G
If you had 5 words (1 sentence) of inspiration to share with young Canadians who are interested in pursuing a career as an astronaut, what would they be?
Never stop learning; continually upgrade your skills. Be persistent and make the necessary sacrifices in the pursuit of your career dreams.
Conducting a fit check for my Extravehicular Mobility Unit
What is your favourite space related object, part of your job, or memory in your career?
My favourite spaceflight memory is the view of our planet from above. My first view of Earth from space occurred a few minutes after reaching orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Sunlight was glinting off the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond the ocean was the curvature of the horizon, and beyond that was nothing but inky black space. It was surreal – different than anything I had previously viewed in a book or film. I will never forget that view – it sent a chill up my spine.
Thereafter, my favourite activity when I had free time was to float near a window and gaze out on the Earth below. Deserts come in a hundred shades of colour. A thunderstorm is a powerful phenomenon to behold. Viewed from above, mountain ranges, erupting volcanos and ocean reefs are mesmerizingly majestic. Night time views of our planet are just as awe-inspiring as daytime views.
A thunderstorm viewed from space
The view from above also showed me that the natural ecosystem is multifaceted. It relies upon finely-tuned connections between the land, oceans, atmosphere, the freshwater cycle, flora and fauna. Through the window, I noticed that an alteration in one part of our ecosystem – like a forest fire – could have impacts on the other side of the planet. Every human being would benefit from this orbital perspective of Earth.
How do you find inspiration in difficult times?
I think of difficult times in the same way as a challenging space mission. In fact, we are all crewmembers aboard Spaceship Earth. Our mission objective during the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, is to flatten the infectious rate curve so that patients and healthcare practitioners around the world have a fighting chance.
It is especially important when I am stressed to pace myself. Pandemics and other crises should be regarded as marathons, not sprints. I attend to my sleep, diet and exercise now to ensure I have the reserves to draw upon in later months when conditions could be more serious. I also build in time for creativity, and stay in touch with friends who are serving on the front lines or are struggling with loss.
Although difficult times can disrupt our usual pattern of living, I don’t accept aimless, unproductive days. I maintain purpose.
We are all crewmembers aboard Spaceship Earth
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I really enjoyed the interview; the questions were thought-provoking.
The Canada Aviation and Space Museum’s Month of Inspiration also features a few other Canadians who work in aerospace:
Kathy Fox, Chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada
Master Corporal Marc Dumaine of the SkyHawks, the CAF parachute team
Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA, the company that built the Canadarms
Captain Erik Temple, pilot of the RCAF Snowbirds aerobatics team
Go to the Museums’ Twitter feed @avspacemuseum to learn why these people chose their particular career paths, who inspired them, and how they find hope and encouragement in tough times.