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Astronaut captures spirit of Speaking of Engineering

By Darcy MacRae | Jan. 24, 2012

The winter edition of Speaking of Engineering proved to be a memorable evening for the 250 people in attendance at the Bruneau Centre for Research and Innovation’s Innovation Hall.

Memorial University faculty, staff and students were among the large crowd on hand on Thursday, Jan. 19, to hear Canadian astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk discuss his experiences from living in space for six months aboard the International Space Station. Also in attendance were members of the general public, including several elementary, junior high and high school students.

“Dr. Thirsk’s presentation generated a lot of excitement around campus in the weeks before his arrival. On the night of Speaking of Engineering, we had people show up more than an hour early just to make sure they could get a seat for his presentation,” said Dr. R. (Venky) Venkatesan, dean, pro tempore, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. “Dr. Thirsk was able to provide us with insight into the life of an astronaut working in space. This is rare information and to hear it firsthand from someone who spent six months working on the International Space Station was an opportunity few of us wanted to miss.”

Speaking of Engineering is a lecture series co-sponsored by the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Memorial University and the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Newfoundland and Labrador (PEGNL). The lectures include speakers from a variety of engineering backgrounds and help promote engineering as a field of study and a profession.

Geoff Emberley, chief executive officer of PEGNL, was on hand for the presentation and delivered the evening’s welcoming remarks. Afterward, Mr. Emberley spoke of Dr. Thirsk’s background as a professional engineer and the role that played in him eventually becoming an astronaut.

“It was an honour to meet Dr. Thirsk and I was thrilled to listen to him describe the research he conducted on board the International Space Station,” said Mr. Emberley. “I think the fact Dr. Thirsk started out in engineering is another example of the important roles professional engineers play in a number of fields. The training and education engineers receive prepares them for a wide variety of skilled positions and in the case of Dr. Thirsk, helped make a lifelong dream come true.”

Dr. Thirsk’s presentation included a movie shot by him and his fellow astronauts at the International Space Station. Audience members saw clips of the international crew working, conducting research, exercising and enjoying social time together. He also used a slide show to highlight a few of his favourite memories from his time in space.

“One of my favourite things to do while I was in space was literally to just look out the window,” Dr. Thirsk told the audience. “We could see smoke coming out of volcanoes and all the different colours of the desert. It was an incredible experience.”

After his presentation, Dr. Thirsk answered audience questions for close to 45 minutes. Questions varied from inquiries about his research to what exactly outer space smells like. Following the event, Dr. Thirsk spent the next hour signing autographs and posing for pictures with audience members.

“Dr. Thirsk captured the spirit of Speaking of Engineering perfectly with his presentation,” Mr. Emberley said. “He was part of a ground-breaking crew that expanded the boundaries of space exploration. Hearing him describe his experiences in space was a great way to celebrate the engineering profession.”

Dr. Thirsk became the first Canadian astronaut to fly a long duration expedition aboard the International Space Station in 2009 when he launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Dr. Thirsk and his international crew mates performed an unprecedented amount of multidisciplinary research, complex robotic operations and maintenance and repair work of station systems and payloads.

He lived and worked aboard the International Space Station for six months, during which time he assumed responsibilities for the maintenance and repair of the station during the mission, while also leading experiments on behalf of Canadian and international researchers.

Dr. Thirsk is a native of New Westminster, British Columbia. He received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary in 1976, a master of science in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1978, a doctorate of medicine from McGill University in 1982 and a master of business administration from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1998.