Six with the right stuff

Robert Miller December 12 1983

Six with the right stuff

Robert Miller December 12 1983

Six with the right stuff


Robert Miller

Nearly a quarter-century after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin stunned the world by orbiting it in his primitive spaceship Vostok, Canada this week is taking its first small step in the giant enterprise of manned space travel. Six healthy, highly educated and intensely motivated Canadians were scheduled to be named as the country’s first astronauts. They will serve at least two years, during which two of them will get a chance to go where Gagarin and the Soviet' and U.S. spacemen dared—across the threshold of the final frontier into outer space. Starting Jan. 1, the six Canadians will train and compete for seats on two flights in the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shuttle program, the first scheduled for late 1985 and the second for the following year. In their spare time, Ottawa hopes, the new astronauts will help put a human face on Canada’s largely unknown but increasingly robust space industry (estimated 1983 sales: $276 million).

Donald Johnston, the federal minister for science and technology, planned to announce the six, winners in a nationwide competition that attracted more than 4,300 applicants, at an Ottawa press conference. Thirteen other candidates, who made it all the way to the final short list, were left disap-

pointed, but could find some solace in the knowledge that they had been officially recognized as among the best and brightest Canada has to offer.

The winners:

Dr. Roberta Bondar, 37, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native, private pilot and neurobiologist at McMaster University in Hamilton. Unmarried, Bondar once inquired about joining NASA’s astro-

naut program, was “confident” of her qualifications, would be thrilled “just to go up, see the earth and look back at it.” Swims, plays tennis, target-shoots.

Marc Garneau, 34, a naval commander, engineer and design specialist in communications and electronic warfare, studied at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., received a PhD from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. Married with two children, Garneau is a Quebec City native whose naval career keeps shuttling him between Halifax and Ottawa. He is a keen auto mechanic and “serious winemaker, curious about the effect weightlessness would have on a good burgundy.”

Steve Maclean, 28, is an Ottawa native with a PhD in astrophysics and laser physics from York University, Toronto. Married, he is doing laser research at Stanford University under 1981 Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Arthur Schawlow. Maclean says Canada has a special role to play in space research because of its tradition of diplomacy and arbitration. He is a pilot, hiker, gymnast and canoeist.

Within three years two Canadians will get a chance to cross the threshold of the final frontier into space

Kenneth Money, 48, oldest candidate selected, but an early favorite because of his strong background in motionsickness research (he was at NASA’s Houston centre last week). A Noranda, Que., native, Money has a PhD in physiology, is a qualified jet pilot, is married and lives in Toronto where he works for the Defence and Civil Institute of Environment and Medicine. He jogs every morning, and said last month he would “be disappointed as hell” not to be selected.

Dr. Robert Thirsk, 30, resident in family medicine at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, holds an MA in biomedical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a medical degree from McGill. A bachelor, born in New Westminster, B.C. Thirsk’s thirst for experience led him to climb in the Himalayas and take up scuba diving.

Bjarni V. Tryggvason, 38, a PhD candidate in engineering and federal research officer, was born in Reykjavik. Now a Canadian citizen who went through high school in Richmond, B.C., he is a bachelor and a qualified flying instructor who also jogs, skis, scuba dives and practises karate.

At the first of the year, the six new astronauts go on the National Research Council (NRC) payroll at salaries ranging from $35,000 to $55,000. They will make a brief visit to the NASA facility at

Houston and then return to Canada to begin work on two experimental projects NASA has deemed crucial to future missions and worthy of testing in the shuttle program. The projects and the Canadian astronaut program are budgeted at a modest $4 million, pin money in the multibillion-dollar world of modern space projects. But Ottawa at least

has a toe in the manned-space door.

NASA has also invited Australia and Brazil to nominate and train scientist/astronauts for shuttle flights, and last week a West German physicist, Ulf Merbold of the European Space Agency (ESA), became the first foreigner to ride in a U.S. spacecraft. Merbold joined the shuttle Columbia on its mission to carry the Spacelab aloft (page 45).

Adventure: NASA’s new international look emerged at a time when the space agency appeared to be losing ground to the U.S. military in the battle for space budget dollars under President Ronald Reagan’s administration. NASA, a civilian organization primarily designed to undertake scientific projects, has been watching its share of U.S. tax dollars shrink while the defense department’s space budget has steadily expanded. This year NASA got $7.1 billion, while the defense department had $11 billion for its space ventures. And Reagan met his National Security Council last week to consider whether or not to proceed with the first planning stages of a space-based weapons system, likely using laser technology, to use against Soviet missiles, an effort that U.S. experts say could ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars to perfect. The president decided in principle to begin the program.

Whether or not the inclusion of for-

eign astronauts in U.S. missions will restimulate U.S. public interest in NASA, there was little doubt that it would cause a stir in countries invited to take part. Although Johnston insisted last week that the Canadian astronaut program was “more than a PR show,” he moved his Ottawa press conference up to Monday to avoid having to compete for media attention with Wednesday’s throne speech. At the same time, his staff, apparently hoping to avoid press leaks, protected the details as though Johnston were about to bring down a full federal budget instead of a modest program of international scientific co-operation. And NRC officials were busy sifting through invitations for the new astronauts to appear at events such as the Klondike Days parade in Edmonton next summer.

As winners of what amounted to a high-tech beauty pageant in which education and fitness replaced appearance and personality as judging criteria, the six were poised to become instant celebrities, if not Canadian heroes. Most of the 19 finalists agreed in the preannouncement interviews that the winners would have to endure countless jokes about space cadets and having

“the right stuff,” at least in the early months of their public appearances. But few, if any, saw themselves or the program in heroic terms. Said Thirsk: “The adventure part of the early Mercury projects will not be a part of the space shuttle. I think the shuttle will be laid back, more a scientific venture than a Buck Rogers adventure.”

Ambitious: Officials in Ottawa, including Johnston, could not say last week whether additional Canadian astronauts would be appointed after the current program runs its course. In the long term, Canada seemed certain to undertake more ambitious space efforts, but the nature and timing of such projects remained guesswork, at least partly because the federal government has not made any decision on future funding levels. Ottawa is more than halfway through a three-year space plan that then Science and Technology Minister John Roberts introduced in 1982. This year, under Johnston, Ottawa is budgeting $136 million for space, $95 million of it for industry. And the interdepartmental space committee—an umbrella group representing such federal ministries as communications, science and technology and defence—has drafted a preliminary plan to maintain Canada’s current level of funding.

Whatever projects are eventually put forward, Canada’s new astronauts are unlikely to be affected. Each astronaut is expected to become reasonably proficient in both Canadian shuttle experimental programs, and expert in one of them. Previously announced programs include: a $2.5-million, NRC-initiated “space vision system” which will use a combination of robotic technology, light reflectors, computers and TV monitors to help shuttle pilots calculate their precise speed and position relevant to other objects—an essential ingredient for safe deployment or recapture of large communications satellites and other pieces of space hardware; and a $500,000 experiment devised by the Canadian defence department and Montreal’s McGill University to study and possibly counter the effects of motion sickness, which NASA says afflicts 40 per cent of all space travellers within 72 hours of lift-off.

According to the NRC, the six Canadians will be split into two groups of three, each group concentrating on its own specialty. About a year before each mission is launched—the order of the experiments has not been determined— a prime candidate will be selected for the shuttle flight while the other two members of the team train as backup.

The selection of the six was the final act in a long and exhaustive process that began in July, when the government placed unusual “Help Wanted” newspaper advertisements across the country to solicit volunteers. The response, according to NRC employment officer Richard Leduc, was remarkable in its volume, diversity and overall quality. Fully 4,380 Canadians answered the ads. The NRC heard from a 73-year-old female housekeeper, several accountants, a dozen dentists and hundreds of schoolchildren as young as six years of age. There also were 1,800 applicants who had sufficient qualifications to be invited to fill in longer, more detailed applications. Said Leduc: “Overall, the applications were very serious. Even the kids amazed me by asking serious questions about the future of the program.”

Tension: The next stage involved an analysis of the more than 1,600 detailed applications that arrived in Ottawa before the Sept. 2 deadline. A screening committee selected 68 potential astronauts and then toured the country starting in mid-October for face-to-face interviews. Ottawa subsequently narrowed the field to the final 19, who were summoned to Ottawa in November for an extended series of medical tests and an appearance before an eight-member final selection committee chaired by NRC Secretary-General Madeleine Hinchey. U.S. astronaut Paul Weitz, who was the commander of the sixth shuttle flight last April, assisted the committee in an advisory capacity. Many of the candidates found the committee to be inordinately serious, if not intimidating. Recalled family physician Thirsk: “They reminded me a bit of the dour couple in the painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. They did not respond to attempts at humor. I guess there was a lot of tension.”

The medical examinations were no less arduous, even for those members of the final 19 who held medical degrees. Said Kenneth Money, a native of Noranda, Que., who holds a PhD in physiology: “The medical was a pretty brutal activity. I got stabbed 21 times in two days with needles. They took blood samples, starved us, sandpapered our chests for the electrocardiograms and ran us on a treadmill until we dropped.”

For his part, Dana Ferguson, a pilot and bilingual engineer from Yellowknife, N.W.T., said that he found the medical an ordeal, particularly a brain scan procedure which required 16 needles in the scalp. But the indignity Ferguson recalled most vividly was the day that the candidates delivered stool samples to the doctors at the NRC medical lab from the Château Laurier hotel, where the final 19 stayed. Said Ferguson: “Everybody was sitting there on

the bus looking at the ceiling with their little box in their lap. The embarrassment was palpable.”

Dr. Roberta Bondar, a neurobiologist-pilot who works at McMaster University’s department of medicine, said that she underwent every test and medical check given the 18 men, plus one—a test for pregnancy. (It proved negative.)

The six who were chosen to train for U.S. shuttle flights owed at least a partial debt to the Soviet space program, which pioneered the concept of multinational crews. The U.S.-Soviet monopoly on manned space flight ended in March, 1978, when 29-year-old Czechoslovak Air Force Capt. Vladimir Remek blasted into orbit aboard a Soyuz rocket under the command of veteran Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Gubarev. To date, there have been five missions involving Eastern European cosmonauts plus orbital flights by air force officers from Vietnam, Cuba and Mongolia.

Both NASA and Canadian space officials seemed determined to avoid criticism that the flights are mere public relations. Said NASA’s Jesse Moore, deputy associate minister of the shuttle program: “We are extremely interested in space motion sickness [and] what Canadian expertise could bring to bear. Astronauts affected by space motion sickness are inhibited in their proficien-

cy.” On the Canadian side, Raymond Marchand, a member of the interdepartmental selection panel for the astronaut program, was emphatic: “We were not going to send a man up just to push a button. We wanted it to be something worth while.”

The United States has taken a different, and slower, approach than the Soviets on the question of multinational crews. To open the way for foreigners, NASA created a new category of astronaut-payload specialist—to go along with its original pilot and mission specialist categories. The six Canadians will all be designated payload specialists, which basically means that they are working scientists who carry their own equipment aloft and perform their own experiments.

Payload: For more than 20 years, NASA rigidly maintained an Americansonly policy on manned flights, despite the substantial number of non-U.S. ground personnel working on NASA projects. It was not until September, 1982, that the United States changed its policy. Maj.-Gen. James Abrahamson, NASA’s associate director for space flights, announced the reversal in Ottawa, where he and other U.S. space officials were celebrating the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Canadian space co-operation. The relationship began with NASA’s launch of Canada’s first satel-

lite, the Alouette, in September, 1962. Abrahamson’s announcement that Canadian payload specialists would be welcomed on future shuttle flights ultimately led to this week’s astronaut appointments. Added NASA’s Kenneth Pederson, director of international affairs: “It [a multinational crew] helps us to spread the cost of these missions, and gives us access to highly qualified scientists.”

Undoubtedly, Washington was also motivated by sheer gratitude for services rendered.

The Europeans made a gift to NASA of the $1.1billion Spacelab that Columbia carried aloft last week, and Canada designed and built the now famous $110-million space arm which is so essential to the shuttle missions. Said a NASA spokesman in Houston last week: “We might have been able to get the money from Congress, but we might not have been able to do these things on our own.”

The Canadian astronaut program may be small, but the industry it is intended to showcase is big and growing. The government estimates that the Canadian space industry employs a total of 3,000 highly trained workers in the public and private sectors, and

a 1983 report by Woods Gordon, a Toronto-based consulting firm, says that the industry grew tenfold during 19721982. There are more than 50 manufacturing and consulting firms, mostly Canadian-owned, in the space business, and some of their projects are very large. NASA has placed 12 Canadian satellites in orbit since Alouette. As a result, Canada has become internationally accepted as an authority on communications satellite design and manufacture. A case in point: Spar Aerospace

Ltd. of Toronto recently won a $165-million contract to design a satellite for Brazil, and it is now bidding on a $160million Nigerian project.

Gigantic: Best known among the private sector companies is Spar, the designer and builder of the “Canadarm” which the U.S. shuttle program uses to capture and deploy hardware in orbit. NASA has agreed to buy at least three more Canadarms and Spar has just completed a $500,000 study on potential roles for Canadian companies to play if NASA wins approval to build a gigantic, permanently manned space station (estimated cost: $8 billion to $12 billion) at the end of the decade.

Among the most exciting of a dozen or more projects in various stages of planning, design or construction by the Canadian industry is an orbiting telescope named Starlab, which its supporters hope will be launched in the early 1990s. The optical telescope, a joint CanadianU.S.-Australian venture, will sit on a platform in space and scan the universe for scientists on Earth. The Canadian portion of the project will cost an estimated $60 million, and researchers believe that it may be Canada’s next Canadarm-style space triumph. The device will be capable of being returned to Earth periodi-

cally for upgrading as technology improves, and management will be entirely in Canadian hands. According to astronomer Gordon Walker of the University of British Columbia, the project scientist, Starlab represents “an opportunity to really begin doing things, making discoveries ourselves.”

NASA North: Still, some Canadians are dissatisfied with the space industry despite its continuing growth. The chief problem, according to critics in both sectors: the lack of any overall space game plan by the federal government. Said James Taylor, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Aeronautics Ltd.: “There is not enough money in any one department to run a decent co-ordinated program. We are drifting. There is no leadership.”

The most widely suggested solution is the establishment of Canada’s own space agency, a sort of NASA North that would manage and plan what is clearly

going to be a major Canadian industry in the 21st century. But some space executives, such as Spar Vice-President Christopher Trump, disagree. “The problem with an agency,” said Trump, “is that you are just going to build another layer cake of directors.” So far, Johnston has given no indication that he is swayed by either argument.

While the debate over the need for a NASA North continued within the space community, Canada’s new astronauts were looking forward to their first official visit to the Houston facility of NASA proper, planned for early in the new year. The original six were going places. But then they always were. It was in their stars.

With Keith Charles in Moscow, Patricia Hluchy, Pat Ohlendorf and Ann Walmsley in Toronto, William Lowther in Washington and Julie Van Düsen in Ottawa.