Heroes in Space

Robert Thirsk with fellow Canadian astronaut Julie Payette

What could Jean Béliveau and Bobby Orr possibly have to do with Canada’s work in space? Read about the lasting impressions our sports heroes can make, and leave a comment.

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk brought a lot of interesting things with him on his journeys into space. What caught my attention is the photo of retired hockey star Jean Béliveau and the Stanley Cup rings belonging to Bobby Orr. When he set the record last year for the longest time in space by a Canadian (six months on the international space station), he made sure to bring along reminders of his hockey heroes.

I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Thirsk when he spoke at McGill University’s Open house recently, and was struck by his enthusiasm and energy. I peppered him with dozens of questions, ranging from the spiritual impact of flying in space to the physical impact on bone density . The McGill grad tackled them all with the patience of Job!

I followed up with him by email, and here are his precise responses about the impact of his sporting heroes.

The space equivalent of hanging a poster on your bedroom wall!

G4S: You brought a photo of Jean Béliveau during your last space mission, why did you do that?

RT: A six-month expedition aboard the International Space Station (ISS) can be challenging.  Even on difficult days, it is important to remain upbeat, and to maintain positive interpersonal relations.

Jean Béliveau is one of my role models.  I brought along his photo to space and placed it on a wall in my sleep station.  When I looked at the photo, I was reminded of Jean’s professionalism, team play, leadership and concern for others.  These are the same qualities that astronauts should demonstrate when interacting with our crew mates and the mission control centres on the ground.

G4S: Not only were you able to speak with Mr. Béliveau during your mission, but you met with him for dinner when you returned to earth. What did you learn about the man through meeting him in person?

RT: I met Mr. Béliveau and his wife, Élise, for dinner after I had returned to Earth.  What a thrill!  Although he is a distinguished legend, Jean’s kindness and genuine interest in the space program put me at ease.  We spent the evening talking about my adventure aboard the ISS and about his career with the Canadiens. I gave him the photo that had flown in space (for six months and 125 million kilometers!) with me.  This was my way to say thanks for being an inspiration to me and millions of other Canadians.

It's tempting to photoshop some St. Louis Blues' players in the background.

G4S: Your other hockey hero is Bobby Orr, and you had the opportunity to carry his two Stanley Cup rings with you on separate missions. In what way has Bobby Orr shaped your life?

RT: On my shuttle flight in 1996, I flew Bobby Orr’s 1970 Stanley Cup Championship ring.  On my ISS expedition last year, I flew Bobby’s 1972 ring.  (In retrospect, it’s amazing to think that he entrusted me with these valuable artifacts.  If I had lost the rings in space, I would’ve become infamous in Canada!)

Bobby Orr is also a source of inspiration for me.  Some people say that he had natural talent.  I believe, however, that his success as a hockey player is better explained by his work ethic, his dedication, and his passion for the game.

G4S: In many ways, your work as an astronaut is far removed from what Bobby Orr and Jean Béliveau did as a hockey players. I could argue that your attachment to the players is an example of how a player can transcend his sport. At what point do you think does an athlete transcend his sport?

RT: Although I am the greatest sports fan, there is much more to life than putting pucks in a net, hitting home runs or throwing basketballs through hoops. Athletes transcend their sport when they are held in higher regard for their contributions to society-at-large than for their achievements in the sports arena.  Both Bobby Orr and Jean Béliveau had incredible hockey careers and worked hard for every goal they scored.  However they are also humble people with admirable human values.  They feel an obligation to give back to their home communities and to less fortunate people, and to bolster hockey programs at the grassroots level.  They are better human beings than hockey players.

G4S: Physical fitness is essential to the pursuit of your work as an astronaut. What kind of fitness routine do you pursue when on earth?

RT: I spend two hours at the gym a few times each week.  My routine includes:

  • warm-up and stretching
  • 30 minutes of aerobics
  • balance and reactive exercises
  • resistance exercises (using barbells and dumbbells)
  • core exercises (with medicine balls)
  • static stretching

I also enjoy playing hockey and squash.

G4S: How do you motivate yourself to remain consistent with your physical routine?

RT: My goal is to retain my functional fitness throughout my life.  For instance, I still run through our neighbourhood with my older son, and backpack in the Rockies with my younger son.  Next year I hope to go on a kayaking expedition in Patagonia with my daughter.

I’m also motivated by other people.  There is spry gentleman from Kitchener, Ontario who participated in our national fitness program (called ‘Get Fit For Space’) that was associated with last year’s ISS expedition.  Irv is 94 years old and walked 900 kilometers in the hallways of his assisted-living residence during the six months that I was in space.  People like Irv are role models.  Their dedication to fitness inspires me to exercise even on those days when I feel less energetic.

G4S: When in space for six months as you were last year, what is the equivalent of what we consider a fitness routine?

RT: If ISS astronauts did not exercise, our bodies would become de-conditioned in the weightless environment of space.  Consequently we are scheduled two hours each day for exercise.  Half of our exercise is devoted to aerobic fitness and the other half to muscle toning.  We have two stationary bikes on the Station (BTW bike seats are not needed in weightlessness!), two treadmills (one is named after the American comedian Stephen Colbert) and an advanced resistive exercise device (ARED) that provides our muscles with a workout that is similar to a barbell/dumbbell workout on Earth. Personal trainers on the ground monitor our progress and continually modify our exercise protocols.  The goals of the program are to minimize the de-conditioning of our cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, and to ensure that we will be physically ready for return to Earth’s gravity field at the end of our mission.

G4S: Finally, if you had become an NHL hockey player, would you have been a better fit with Béliveau on the wing, or along the point with Orr?

RT: What a fanciful question!  I would’ve been an equally bad fit on the wing and the point.  In fact, the NHL would’ve needed to invent a position for me called ‘left decoy’ to adequately describe my role and abilities.  But what a thrill it would be to skate on the same ice surface as these two legends!



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