On Campus

Astronaut gets degree for out-of-this-world achievements

Thirsk says it would be hard to send his honorary degree through space

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk is getting an honorary degree from the University of Calgary for his out-of-this-world achievements, but he won’t be able to sport a cap and gown.

Thirsk’s current six-month stint in space means the July 8 ceremony will be beamed aboard the International Space Station via a video link.

Astronauts train for decades for their shot in space, and it seemed only fitting to recognize Thirsk while he’s actually in orbit, University president Harvey Weingarten said Tuesday.

“We’re acknowledging the contribution this fellow has made to space exploration. We’re acknowledging a prominent Canadian we can all take pride in,” he said.

“It just seemed like a natural and neat thing to do, to recognize him while he’s actually doing his work in space.”

Thirsk, a native of New Westminster, B.C, earned his first degree at the University of Calgary in mechanical engineering. He followed that with two master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a medical degree from McGill.

The 55-year-old astronaut arrived at the station May 29 on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft along with a Russian and a Belgian, bringing the station up to a full-time crew of six.

He could soon be joined by a familiar face – Canadian Julie Payette and six other astronauts are scheduled to blast off Wednesday for a quick rendezvous with the station.

It will be the first time Canada has had two astronauts on board the space station at the same time, and will bring the number of people simultaneously to a record 13.

Thirsk is laying the groundwork for the deployment of Canadian robots on other planets and figuring out how to help people adapt to extreme environments.

In a statement from the space station, Thirsk said he was humbled by the university’s decision to grant him the degree “at the apogee of my space exploration adventure.”

The astronaut has remained close to friends and family in Calgary and has made a big impact on those who followed him at the school, said Weingarten.

“This guy’s forte is in dealing with students … and engaging them in discussions and simply talking about space and science and what they can do with their careers, fulfilling their dreams.”

Despite the distance between Thirsk and his degree, the ceremony will follow the normal pomp and circumstance surrounding convocation.

The bestowing of the degree will be slightly condensed to fit into the 10-minute time frame the hookup allows, but Thirsk will have time to make a quick speech.

“It’ll be short, because you don’t have that much time to link up with people in space, (but) we will have the customary ceremony and the pagentry around convocation,” said Weingarten.

Thirsk won’t be able to actually hold his degree, however, until his feet are firmly planted back on earth, he said.

“It’s a little hard to send it through space.”

– The Canadian Press

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