Three cheers for Canada

In media interviews, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette recently pointed out the often overlooked contributions of Canucks in the exploration of outer space.

In media interviews, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette recently pointed out the often overlooked contributions of Canucks in the exploration of outer space.

Her words are important because not enough Canadians appreciate the role this country has played in helping mankind to understand the rest of the universe.

Admittedly, the Great White North is no Uncle Sam.

The United States has done considerably more “where no man has gone before,” but for a country with a much smaller population and economy, we’ve accomplished a lot.

“It was hard to not know that Canada was a participant in (the recent space shuttle Endeavour) mission because every time we moved a robotic arm, of course this time we wrote the name of the country on the booms everywhere — so it was very apparent that we were there not only with physical workers, but also with robotics workers,” Payette explained late last month.

As the crew’s robotic arm expert, she operated three arms during the mission: the Station’s Canadarm2, the Shuttle’s Canadarm and the Japanese arm.

When Endeavour crew members arrived at the International Space Station, they were met by six astronauts already there — including Canadian Robert Thirsk, who is two months into a six-month stint.

Thirsk and Payette are proving that Canada can produce the kind of intelligent and well-educated individuals capable of keeping up with the best minds in the world.

Canadians should be proud, indeed.

The latest Endeavour mission was historic for Canada’s space program, since it marked the first time two Canadian astronauts were in space at once.

Not surprisingly, in Longueuil, Que., a few hundred members of the public and Canadian Space Agency employees cheered as they watched the picture-perfect return landing of the Endeavour on a big screen.

It was a wonderful moment for anyone who treasures this country.

Unfortunately, it was a little bittersweet as it marks the last time a Canadian will fly to space aboard a shuttle.

The United States is scrapping its shuttle program next year and a Canadian astronaut is not expected to visit outer space again until at least 2012.

That said, Canada should have no regrets.

“We’ve done well. We’ve had a good run over the last 25 years since (astronaut) Marc Garneau started,” Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean said.

Thirsk, from New Westminster, B.C., travelled to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, which lifted off from a launch pad in Kazakhstan on May 27.

He is living on the station for six months, the first Canadian to stay aboard the station for an extended period of time.

The accomplishments of Canadians, such as Thirsk and Payette, were highlighted in a speech by Environment Minister Jim Prentice back in April.

Back then, he was especially optimistic about the potential of the International Space Station.

Prentice described the International Space Station as a “proving ground for some of our most advanced technologies — technologies like the Canadarm that help brand Canada as a nation at the forefront of innovation.”

He noted that Canada “was the world’s third space-faring nation. . . . In 1962, Canada became the third country in the world to design and build its own satellite with the launch of Alouette. It was a satellite to look down on the ionosphere and was expected to last a year.

“Instead, its mission lasted for 10 years, it sent over a million images, and it helped form the reputation for the quality of Canadian satellites.”

Ten years later, Prentice added, Canada became the first country to launch a domestic communications satellite — the Anik A.

“In a country as vast as Canada, with our population scattered across some of the toughest terrain on the planet, it was no surprise that we were pioneers in using satellites to enable Canadians to communicate with one another through telephones and television. The latest version, the Anik F, helps bring broadband Internet to remote communities,” Prentice said.

Yet, according to the cabinet minister, Canada’s contributions to the exploration of outer space are hardly done.

This May, for example, he noted, “The Phoenix Mission is scheduled to land on Mars. It will plant the red Maple Leaf on the red planet because the mission includes a meteorological station, called MET, built by the Canadian Space Agency. MET will track the weather and climate of our nearest planetary neighbour.”

The Canadian Space Program is said to be currently conducting a strategic review of its programs and priorities.

As ordinary Canadians, we can only hope that our federal government continues to aim for the stars — figuratively and literally.

Let’s continue this tradition of excellence!

Lee Giles is an Advocate editor.