Thirsk, Robert

Degree conferred: Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.)

Orator: Davies, Gwendolyn

to be Doctor of Science

In 2009, Canadians avidly followed reports of astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk, as on May 27th he flew into space on Soyuz TMA-15, spent six months on the International Space Station (the longest sojourn ever by a Canadian in space), and returned to earth on Dec. 1st, landing in Kazakhstan. It was not the first time that Dr. Thirsk had forfeited the comforts of earth in the cause of research, but his six months in space marked the culmination of an international training and research trajectory in his career that included 16 days in space in 1996.

Dr. Thirsk holds a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary and MIT respectively, an MD. from McGill, and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Selected in December 1983 for the Canadian Astronaut Program, he was backup payload specialist to Canadian Marc Garneau for the October 1984 space shuttle mission. In June-July 1996 he and six crewmates spent 17 days in space performing experiments, including space flight impacts on plants, animals, and humans.

Following his first space flight, Dr. Thirsk pursued mission-specialist training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston (1998), and trained at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre near Moscow (2004). In 2005 and 2008, he performed Eurocom duties at the Columbus control Centre, Germany, in support of International Space Station expeditions.

Dr. Thirsk’s return to space in May, 2009, and his subsequent six-months on the International Space Station, includes a research footnote of particular interest to UNB. Prior to his second launch, Dr. Thirsk travelled from Houston to Montreal to meet with Dr. Rodney Savidge of Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management at UNB to become familiar with Dr. Savidge’s APEX-Cambium experiment, the first research into tree growth to be conducted in space. Thus, when the shuttle Atlantis was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre on Nov. 16, 2009, it carried into space 24 willow saplings produced from trees growing in Fredericton and Truro.

Dr. Thirsk transferred the saplings from the shuttle Atlantis to cold storage on the International Space Station, performed the delicate manipulations necessary to initiate the grow-out of 18 trees in the weightless environment of space, and, in an unscheduled experiment, put the remaining six trees in ziplock bags in the crew quarters. Dr. Thirsk monitored the 18 trees in the growth chamber throughout his time on board the ISS, at one point saving the experiment when it ran into difficulties in its early stages.

The future of Fredericton’s saplings in space remains a story for another day, but this UNB connection speaks to the range and unexpectedness of the research that Dr. Thirsk faces in his multifaceted career. He is an astronaut, scientist, researcher, and Canadian of whom we are all deeply proud.

From: Honoris Causa - UA Case 70, Box 4

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