For teachers as well as students, having been the first Canadian in space gives one greater credibility than having served in the Canadian Parliament, or in Cabinet as Minister of Transport and Foreign Affairs, or being named a Member of the Order of Canada.
Marc Garneau, MP for NDG-Westmount and Canada’s first astronaut, visited Selwyn House via Zoom on April 1 to speak to members of the school’s Space Club. About 20 students and teachers attending the meeting wanted to know about Garneau’s space exploits more than his political career.
Born in Quebec City in 1949, Mr. Garneau earned his PhD from the Imperial College of London and served as an engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1984, he was chosen as one of 4000 candidates recruited for space flight by the Canadian space program. Only six became astronauts.
Garneau flew on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984 as a payload specialist, using the Canadarm to build the Space Station’s solar panels. He flew two subsequent shuttle missions, in 1996 and 2000, for a total of 677 hours in space.
The bulk of an astronaut’s time is spent in training for the actual mission, he told the Selwyn House Space Club. “Half your time is spent training for when things go well,” he said. “The other 50 per cent preparing for when they don’t.”
His scariest moment? “It’s not scary to be in space,” he clarified. “When you’re scared is during launch and re-entry.”
To explain why, he mentioned the 1986 Challenger accident during launch, and the 2003 disintegration of the Columbia during re-entry. Both incidents resulted in the death of the crew. “It’s a calculated risk,” he said. “You can’t guarantee 100 per cent safety.”
At launch, the engines on the shuttle ignite, and, in 2.5 minutes you are moving away from earth at 2,800 km per hour, or 2.5 times the speed of sound, attaining a speed at which you can circle the planet in 90 minutes.
His favourite moment? “When I first saw earth from the mid-deck window,” he recalled. “The sight leaves you literally speechless. That is why, once they return to earth, astronauts tend to become environmentalists.”
Mission planners organize it so that a typical day in space is as much as possible like a typical day on earth, with shared meals and regular schedules of sleep. Garneau says he loved sleeping in space, floating freely in the shuttle cabin without even a sleeping bag.
He said he found it easier than some astronauts to adjust to the lack of directionality in space, where there is no up nor down. He also said he loved listening to music on the Space Shuttle, finding classical music to be “made for space.”
Space Club President George Adamopoulos asked Mr. Garneau whether he would go back to space today. The astronaut replied that if he could just hop on the shuttle today, he would take the trip. But if he had to go through the year of pre-flight training that’s required, he would decline.