University of Calgary

Thirsk honoured

July 9, 2009

Going to great heights to honour astronaut

Bob Thirsk and his graduation gown both float in space as he receives his honorary degree.
Bob Thirsk and his graduation gown both float in space as he receives his honorary degree.
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Canadian Space Agency astronaut and University of Calgary alumnus Robert Thirsk has become the first Canadian to receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws via live downlink from the International Space Station.

During the live convocation ceremony on the U of C campus on July 8, Thirsk said the event was “a very special honour.”

“If I can’t be in Calgary, I think the second-best place to be is in space," said Thirsk, who did a flip to express his excitement about the event. “When I was a student at U of C 33 years ago, I had a dream of one day flying in space and being an astronaut. Fulfilling that dream is a great feeling. Education really is the key to making your dreams come true.”

Thirsk earned his first degree in mechanical engineering at the U of C in 1976 from the Schulich School of Engineering. He went on to earn two master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his medical degree from McGill University, but remains closely tied to his alma mater and to Calgary with many friends and family still living in the city.

“To say we are watching this mission with great pride and interest is an understatement,” U of C President Harvey Weingarten told assembled guests, which included nearly 100 young teens from university summer camp programs. “Dr. Thirsk is a tremendous ambassador for the University of Calgary and for Canada. His accomplishments are beyond impressive and he is a thoroughly genuine and compassionate person.”

Launching into orbit on May 27 aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, Thirsk is part of a history-making expedition on the space station. He is the first Canadian to undertake a long-duration space flight spanning six months and is one of a record-setting six astronauts now living and working aboard the station performing scientific experiments that will set the stage for future long-distance missions to the moon and Mars.

This is Thirsk’s second time in space. In 1996 he was part of a 17-day mission aboard space shuttle Columbia. He is one of Canada’s original six astronauts with a resume that includes a head-spinning list of titles and accomplishments with the CSA and its international partners including NASA and the Russian, European, and Japanese space agencies.

“We began recognizing Robert’s accomplishments in 1985 when he was the very first recipient of the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Alumni Award,” said Weingarten. “He set a high standard for the alumni who followed in his footsteps.”

The stage party poses with a cutout of Bob Thirsk following the ceremony. / Photo: Stephanie Leblond Jade Media
The stage party poses with a cutout of Bob Thirsk following the ceremony. / Photo: Stephanie Leblond Jade Media
Two other award-winning U of C alumni are also involved with this historic space mission. Dr. Doug Hamilton, a U of C Faculty of Medicine graduate, is the mission’s deputy flight surgeon and Laura Lucier, a graduate of the Schulich School of Engineering, works with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA as a flight-controller and mission-planner. Both are based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“The Honorary Degree is the university’s highest accolade, bestowed on individuals whose extraordinary achievements and service to the community are deemed worthy of praise and note,” said Chancellor Joanne Cuthbertson. “Past recipients include Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Lewis, Al Gore and Roberta Bondar to name just a few. Our own Robert Thirsk is an outstanding addition to this remarkable family.”

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