The Performer: Astronaut Robert Thirsk

On discipline, finding work-life balance at zero gravity and knowing when to pass the torch.

His academic credentials — an MBA and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, a medical doctorate — are impressive enough. But Thirsk’s career headed skyward in 1983, when the Canadian Space Agency recruited him as one of its first six astronauts. Thirsk visited the void twice, including 17 days as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1996, and six months aboard the International Space Station last year. Now, he’s in Houston being debriefed. The last of the original six astronauts still serving, he plans to retire from the CSA later this year. He spoke to Canadian Business senior writer Matthew McClearn.

Date of birth: Aug. 17, 1953

Year recruited to the CSA: 1983

Days spent aboard the International Space Station: 188

Kilometres covered during the ISS mission: 125 million

Estimated cost to run ISS over 30 years: €100 billion

Amount Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberte paid to visit the ISS while Thirsk was aboard in 2009: $35 million

How does a guy find himself aboard the International Space Station?
There’s a story about Isaac Stern, the famous violinist, who was once stopped by a stranger on the sidewalk in New York City and asked how to get to Carnegie Hall. Stern replied, “Practice, practice, practice.” Well, that’s how an astronaut gets into space. The main three things we try to develop are our knowledge and skills, and inculcate a certain attitude.

What attitude is that?
We’re looking for people with vision, decisiveness, attention to detail, refusal to accept defeat and situational awareness.

How did you prepare for last year’s mission?
There’s 2½ years of training prior to a space station expedition. We get the background knowledge on what the station is all about. We learn Russian Soyuz rocket systems — propulsion, electrical power, thermal control, computers, things like that. We develop our skills as well, like robotics and spacewalking. We perform days-long simulations, in which supervisors continually throw malfunctions or contingency situations at us. It’s a good way to develop team spirit and problem-solving skills. For me, the toughest part was Russian language training. Learning a new language is a lot of memorization — especially at my age, it’s difficult.

Describe the launch.
Shortly before flight, we headed to Baikonur, a city in Kazakhstan. We inspected our vehicle, the Soyuz rocket, to make sure it was configured properly. The last week before flight we were quarantined, in order to minimize the chance that we could develop a viral infection before flight. The last couple of days before flight, we were reunited with our families. And then we have the day of launch, which was a hoot. There were hundreds of people at the base of the rocket wishing us well. That’s a different tradition than in America, where there’s nobody allowed anywhere near. We entered one at a time. The Soyuz vehicle is quite small — it’s like having three people inside a telephone booth. We activated the systems aboard our capsule and strapped in. There were a couple of hours of system checks. A few seconds before launch, the main engines ignited. It took a few seconds to reach 100% thrust, and then we lifted off. That’s like a kick in the pants. It took 8½ minutes to get into space. After the engine shut down, there was a lot of hooting and hollering and high-fives.

How do you cope with the inherent risks of your job?
Astronauts are not averse to taking calculated risks. I feel the tiny risk of injury or death is greatly offset by the opportunity to do something meaningful. I try to push fear to the back of my mind. I’d rather die from an unavoidable accident than from my failure to properly perform my duties.

What was it like boarding the space station?
When we opened the hatch, there was this incredible feeling of euphoria as we came from this tiny spaceship to this huge, incredibly sophisticated space station. People were floating about. Moving takes only a slight push off a wall with a finger. For the first few weeks our movements are clumsy, like fledglings or newborn pups. But with time, we learn to move about quickly but gracefully, like swallows.

Previous crews numbered three. You were part of the station’s first permanent crew of six. Why is that significant?
The ISS was initially conceived to be a world-class facility for doing research in medical science and material science, in which we exploit the weightless environment of space to manufacture materials such as ceramics, alloys or protein crystals. We weren’t able to fulfil that mandate with only three people, because it takes 2½ people just to maintain and run the station every day. So I was very proud that our crew operated more than 100 experiments from around the world.

What was the greatest challenge you met up there?
Probably the most difficult thing was to maintain my performance level and accomplish everything on time and correctly. A short-duration flight is like a sprint, and a long-duration expedition aboard the ISS is more like a marathon. For each of those 188 days in orbit, almost every day I was required to perform to 100% of my capabilities. The space station is a multi-billion-dollar facility. A lot of the work we’re doing there has been planned five to 10 years in advance — the careers of professors and graduate students depend on us performing the procedure properly. When I operate robotic systems, I need to ensure I don’t endanger my crewmates or damage the space vehicle. And also I must represent Canada with pride. Toward the end of the six months, I found I was getting mentally and emotionally fatigued.

What’s the greatest sacrifice you’ve had to make?
For a person who loves science and technology and exploration, I have one of the best vocations possible. But you don’t get something for free. The sacrifice is often paid by the family. When things don’t go well at home, it tears me apart emotionally and is a distraction to me as well. That’s the downside. Balancing the demands of astronaut work and family is very difficult.

What are you doing now?
You may have heard that the Canadian Space Agency recruited two new astronauts, Jeremy Hanson and David Saint-Jacques. Flight opportunities for Canadians do not come frequently. I probably do have the health and fitness necessary to fly another long-duration expedition. But I have an obligation to pass on what I’ve learned to the new folks. I don’t intend to fly in space again. I plan to stay here in Houston for the next several months performing my debriefs, passing on the knowledge and experience I’ve gained through my six-month expedition to flight controllers, scientists and engineers. Then I’ll head back to Canada.