Canadian astronaut accepts degree while floating 400 km above Earth

CALGARY — As astronaut Robert Thirsk accepted an honorary degree while orbiting the Earth on Wednesday, he was faced with a bit of a pesky problem

CALGARY — As astronaut Robert Thirsk accepted an honorary degree while orbiting the Earth on Wednesday, he was faced with a bit of a pesky problem.

The crimson and yellow convocation cape slipped on over his blue space jumpsuit kept drifting away as he tried to talk, prompting Thirsk to joke about the most Canadian of problem solvers.

“We need a little bit of good old duct tape to help keep the cape down,” he laughed.

Thirsk, 55, was connected by video link to an auditorium at the University of Calgary as he floated 400 kilometres above the Earth aboard the International Space Station.

He engaged in some space acrobatics as he described his first reaction upon hearing that he would be awarded an honorary doctorate of laws degree, weightlessly flipping head over heels.

“When I was a student at the University of Calgary 33 years ago, I had a dream of one day flying in space, being an astronaut,” he told the crowd of several hundred, many teenaged students.

“It’s a real special honour for me to be able to fly in space and talk to my University of Calgary friends and colleagues from orbit, to get the message across that education is the key to dreams coming true.”

The astronaut was obviously delighted to have an opportunity to talk to some of the younger audience members after the degree presentation, pulling out a variety of floating props to explain his day-to-day life on the space station.

Garbage is compressed tightly into rubber bags to take up as little space as possible and stop odours from permeating the small space, he said, tossing the brown bundle from hand to hand. Grabbing a nearby water bottle, he took a deep slurp before explaining that he was sipping purified urine and sweat.

Janet Aucoin, 14, asked Thirsk how the crew contains odours on the station. Afterwards, she was starstruck by the experience.

“I thought it was very well explained, and it’s definitely something I will now understand. It was fascinating,” she said, adding she was starting to consider a career as an astronaut for the first time.

Thirsk, who is the first Canadian to spend six months in space, earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the university in 1976. He went on to earn two master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a medical degree from McGill University.

University president Harvey Weingarten said it was a privilege to honour Thirsk while he was actually in space and able to inspire so many students.

“This is really the pinnacle of his career, it’s a really proud day for Canadian space travel and for space exploration.”

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