Celebration of a Life Well Lived

Bjarni Tryggvason, a fellow Canadian Space Agency astronaut, died earlier this month. His passing was sudden and unexpected. When my astronaut colleagues and I last saw him at our annual reunion last month in Ottawa, he was in fine form and full of life.

Bjarni was a superb astronaut – technically brilliant, operationally skilled – and a dear friend. He contributed much to our space program and I admired his approach to life.

A Celebration of Life was held yesterday for Bjarni at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum near Hamilton. It was a heartwarming ceremony that provided an opportunity for family and friends to mourn his passing and honour his legacy. I was invited to share my thoughts; the following is what I had to say.

Bjarni Tryggvason

It’s an honour to be asked to share my thoughts and memories of Bjarni.

Bjarni Tryggvason was an amazing individual – an engineer, an aviator, an innovator, a professor, a mentor, a thinker, an instigator, a disruptor, an adventurer, a dreamer.

I met Bjarni 39 years ago when we both applied, along with 4000 other people, to the nascent Canadian Astronaut Program. I sat next to him on a bus that drove the 19 finalists from our downtown hotel to an Ottawa medical centre where we were about to undergo a week of medical testing. It was an amusing scene. On the lap of each candidate were perched containers of our urine and stools that we had each collected overnight and would hand over to medical staff when the bus arrived. Bjarni and I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was a foretaste of the countless specimens of blood, sweat, tears, urine, stool and saliva that we would be contributing, in the name of science, to the space program in the following decades.

Bjarni and I talked often that week. I admired the investigative work he had done into the tragic loss of the Ocean Ranger drilling platform. We had both been inspired in our youth by the space program. Being older than me, Bjarni could recall the launches of Sputnik and of Yuri Gagarin.

When the National Research Council selected the six individuals who would become Canadian astronauts, I was delighted that Bjarni was amongst the chosen. I looked forward to working closely with such a capable, visionary and engaging individual.

The Original Six Canadian Astronauts, 1984

Our corps of newbie astronauts quickly formed a bond. Marc, Steve, Bjarni and I bought a Cessna-172 and based it at a nearby airport. In the evenings and on weekends, Bjarni led us in ground school and taught us to fly. My first solo under Bjarni’s supervision is one of those life moments that I will never forget.

Over the following decades, we shared many other training and life adventures:

  • sky diving courses
  • water survival training
  • parabolic flight campaigns
  • field trips
  • shuttle launches
  • sailing and scuba diving vacations
  • aerobatic and cross-country flights

Bjarni had a wonderful, wry sense of humour. He also had a few personality quirks that we grew to, perhaps not love, but expect. Classically, he was frequently late arriving for important events.

The original astronaut corps often travelled for training activities together. Marc, Steve and I would check in at the airport an hour before flight time, as recommended, and board the plane with the other passengers 30 minutes prior. Bjarni never did. We would stare at the empty seat on the plane and wonder “where’s Bjarni?” Just as the main aircraft door was closing, Bjarni would step aboard and take his seat with an impish smile on his face. This was a scene that happened repeatedly.

It wasn’t that Bjarni had little regard for schedule. He actually had a good sense of time management. He took a Carpe Diem approach to life, seizing every moment. He was obsessed about cramming a maximum amount of activity into each day. This meant that even on the morning of a business trip, for instance, he would still fit in an early morning flying lesson, a visit to a lab, or a phone call with a colleague.

Bjarni accomplished more than other people because he did more than other people.

In the early days of the Astronaut Program, we had an informal club known as the Troublemakers Club. The Club was somewhat elite, and not easy to join. The sole criterion for membership was this: “to be accepted as a member, you must have p*ssed off a vice-president on at least one occasion”. It wasn’t enough to have annoyed an NRC manager or a CSA director – our words or actions had to have been more egregious than that.

Club meetings typically occurred at a neighbourhood pub. Over lunch and beverages, we would listen to the testimonies of budding applicants to ensure they met the admission criterion. And sometimes we would just get together to share stories and laugh.

The name of our Club was probably a misnomer. Our intent was not to make trouble for our executive leaders. But we did take pride in speaking up when improvements needed to be made.

Several astronauts and other space colleagues were members. But our founder and president was Bjarni Tryggvason. Bjarni was in a troublemaking league of his own! His example often reminded me later in my career that we all have a professional responsibility to be truthful, frank and direct; to speak candidly when sober second thought is warranted; to learn from our mistakes so that potential failures and accidents can be avoided.

Bjarni was a critical thinker. He often said that uncritical acceptance of conventional wisdom and processes, and risk-averse behaviour does an organization no favour.

He and I occasionally had heated discussions. I recall arguing with him once about the aerodynamic force known as lift. Conventional wisdom – which is taught in all secondary, post-secondary and flight schools – is that Bernoulli’s theorem explains lift as a consequence of the curved upper surface of an airplane wing. But Bjarni was skeptical. The theorem, he said, is incomplete and doesn’t provide a full accounting of all the forces, factors and conditions governing lift.

I didn’t always agree with his perspective, but he always caused me to pause, reflect and evaluate my own beliefs.

Bjarni did not always choose the most diplomatic words to convey his opinions – he would never be appointed as an ambassador. He spoke directly, which abraded some egos and burned one or two bridges.

We abided him because we knew he cared deeply for our missions, our space agency and our country.

Bjarni was a meticulous engineer who worked until the job was done. This meant that we often worked late into the evenings. I recall entering his Houston hotel room once in the middle of the night prior to a KC-135 parabolic flight campaign. Bjarni was using his room as an engineering lab to configure a data acquisition system for flight in the morning. As I moved about the room, I had to be careful where I stepped to avoid damaging printed circuit boards, piles of computer chips or sleeping co-op students that were scattered about the floor.

‘Astronaut’ is a unique profession characterized by complex roles, responsibilities, knowledge and attitudes. Bjarni had what it took – the MacGyver-like instincts and skills – to function well in the difficult working environment of space.

The highlight of Bjarni’s career was his STS-85 shuttle flight in 1997, a 12-day mission aboard Discovery. During the flight, Bjarni performed a suite of fluid dynamics experiments and tested a Canadian technology he helped develop, the Microgravity Vibration Isolation Mount. The system was designed to create experimentation conditions that were free of the vibrations caused by astronauts, machinery and thrusters aboard spacecraft. The technology was later adapted for flight aboard the Mir station and on the International Space Station (where I helped commission it).

Launch of shuttle Discovery and the STS-85 mission, August 7, 1997

Having too much fun aboard Discovery!

I was the Canadian Space Agency rep who welcomed Bjarni back to Earth when Discovery landed at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. At the landing, Bjarni was beaming. He had the biggest, goofiest grin on his face – the grin of someone who knows he did a good job – of someone who has just fulfilled a childhood dream.

He was an exceptional astronaut. I would enjoy spending six months in space with him. If we ever experienced a bad day in space together, I know I could depend on him to save my life.

I last saw Bjarni a month ago. We met in a hotel lounge to catch-up on each other’s news. He was in fine form – engaging, funny, enjoying what he was doing, loving life. It was almost scary to be with him – he had so many things to talk about.

Former and current Canadian Space Agency astronauts, Ottawa, 25 March 2022

Flying had always been Bjarni’s passion. He spoke about the flight tests he had recently completed on a new eco-friendly, fuel-efficient corporate jet, the Celera 500L. He had also been:

  • technical advising on-set for the movie Moonfall with Halle Berry,
  • teaching at the University of Iceland, and
  • working with curriculum developers on learning activities for students.

He was still admirably focused on inspiring the next generation of scientists. He recently participated in an online educational event with 2 million student participants.

Bjarni’s eyes especially lit up when talking about his children. He was a proud father with a heart as big as a beach ball. Both children are doing well and are exceedingly accomplished.

And he continued to be an exemplary troublemaker. Over the last year, he had managed to p*ss off an aircraft manufacturer and a Hollywood movie director. (Well done, Bjarni!)

As I wrap up, I have one final story to tell.

Many years ago, Bjarni and I had been asked to speak together at a memorial service. I stood anxiously at the front door of the church awaiting Bjarni’s arrival so that we could begin the service. As Bjarni arrived (of course with one minute to spare), someone said with exasperation, “Bjarni, you’re going to be late for your own funeral!”

But unfortunately, he was not late for his own funeral. In fact, he was early. Funerals are not meant for people who are at the top of their game, who are enjoying life, who are filling their days with productive endeavours.

Bjarni Tryggvason’s impact on life and society will be remembered. He was a bright star in our nation’s space program. His technical and operational prowess as well as personal diligence well exemplified the level of performance toward which we all strive. His passing leaves a big hole in my heart, in the hearts of Canadian astronauts, and in Bjarni’s many space colleagues across the country and abroad. But we are better people today because we had the privilege to know him.

Thank you to the Tryggvason family for this opportunity to share my thoughts and memories of Bjarni. He was an exemplary astronaut and a dear friend.

He will be missed.

Bjarni Tryggvason, 1945 – 2022 – A Life Well Lived

One thought on “Celebration of a Life Well Lived

  1. When I went into journalism, I was intending on being a space correspondent. While that did not happen, I have covered two handful of space milestones and interviewed (or crossed paths with) about two dozen astronauts, including several of Mr. Tryggvason’s colleagues. Yet oddly enough when I met Mr. Tryggvason, it was not in a journalism capacity at all. He was a customer in the retail store I was working at to pay for my university education. I was struck not by his technical mind, flying or talk of his mission (though I ached to ask him about these things), but by the father’s pride he displayed with his son in his company. Space shuttle missions are impressive feats, as he knew, but you could see fatherhood was a feat above that for him.

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