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First Person

‘After a few days in space, I felt like I'd been born there’

Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk on phoning home from space, our future on Mars, and his favorite Star Wars movies

Robert Thirsk became the first Canadian astronaut on a long-term space flight in 2009, when he spent 188 days on the International Space Station. He also spent 17 days in orbit in 1996, on the Space Shuttle Columbia. A doctor and engineer, Thirsk, 66, is an adjunct faculty member at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France.

What object in the night sky got you most excited as a kid?
The Moon. On a July evening in 1969, I watched a video transmission being broadcast from the lunar surface. Black-and-white television images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounding across the Moon were captivating. I ran back and forth between the TV set in our living room and our yard outside with its view of the Moon, trying to comprehend what was happening.

What’s a technology, that, as a kid, you thought we’d have by now, but we don’t?
Nuclear fusion. Throughout my life it seemed that the promise of nuclear fusion was always 20 years away. I better understand now the technical challenges that must be overcome and the investment that will be required before we can benefit from this clean, safe, and limitless energy source.

What’s the most surprising thing about living in microgravity?
The alien environment of spaceflight — vacuum, extreme temperatures, weightlessness — has not impeded the ability of humans to explore and be productive. We quickly adapt. During my own space missions, I quickly learned to fly gracefully about the spacecraft like Superman. After a few days in space, it felt as though I had been born there.

What are three technological advances on the horizon that you think will change space travel?
Ion propulsion systems will speed up travel within the inner solar system. The thrust from an ion thruster is low compared to a chemical rocket, but it can be operated continuously and the spacecraft can therefore build up large velocities. This will reduce travel times to interplanetary destinations.

In-situ resource utilization will allow future astronauts to produce consumables they need from local space-based resources, rather than bring them along from Earth. Breathable oxygen, potable water, and rocket propellant, for instance, can be derived from the Martian atmosphere and soil.

Landing heavy payloads. The one-ton Curiosity rover is the largest object that we have landed on Mars to date. For a human mission, we’ll need to land 40 tons of equipment and supplies, akin to landing a small two-story house. This decade’s lunar exploration program will provide opportunities for us to develop and test the larger landing systems needed for deep space missions.

“Our home planet is gloriously beautiful. Deserts come in a hundred shades of color. A thunderstorm is a powerful phenomenon to behold.”

When you spent time in space, what technology kept you most attached to life at home?
We have a private IP phone aboard the International Space Station and can call any phone on the ground whenever we have satellite coverage. After a demanding day of research, repair, and robotics work, it’s relaxing for astronauts to chat on the phone in the evening with dear family members and friends on the ground. We enjoyed hearing about life at home.

How have social media changed astronauts’ connections with people on Earth?
Internet and social media platforms are useful to connect astronauts with world and cultural affairs. During an arduous long-duration mission, they are great psychological aids. Social media also provide astronauts with a platform to share our joy of spaceflight and the personal aspects of living in space — sleeping, eating, brushing teeth — with followers on the ground.

Is artificial intelligence changing the professions you’ve worked in?
Artificial intelligence is playing a larger role in clinical health care. This is exciting. AI technologies are already improving certain health care processes like image analysis and robot-assisted surgery. With further research and development, AI could someday help doctors and nurses in remote practice locations to diagnose difficult cases and to improve patient outcomes. AI-based clinical decision-making would certainly be an asset to a physician-astronaut aboard a deep space vehicle.

What’s the biggest ethical conundrum we face when it comes to emerging technology?
Does the ability to edit the genetic code of humans mean that we should do so? Does the ability to cheaply launch mega-constellations of broadband satellites into low Earth orbit mean that we should? Before adopting these technologies, society needs to consider and regulate the unintended consequences.

What’s your favorite movie about space, and why?
Aargh! It’s unfair to ask me to choose my favorite space movie. I have so many. I really enjoyed the movie The Martian. I liked how the astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, solved a series of complex problems in order to survive on the red planet until a rescue mission could be launched. Resourcefulness and an encyclopedic knowledge of science are well depicted in the movie as necessary astronaut traits. The movie also gave us a foretaste of the technologies — rover, habitat, ascent vehicle — that will be required to enable the first human mission to Mars.

What’s one strange or surprising app you have on your phone?
Ha! I’m a pretty conventional guy, so I don’t have any strange apps on my phone. But I do have a stargazing app called SkyView that is fun. I use it every evening when I walk our dog in the darkness of our neighborhood. It helps me identify planets and spacecraft (Hubble, ISS) in our local sky. I also use it when I travel Down Under to learn the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

How did you relax in space?
Although the Space Station has a well-stocked library, I chose not to read any books or view any DVDs. In my downtime, I instead floated near a window and gazed out on the Earth below. Our home planet is gloriously beautiful. Deserts come in a hundred shades of color. A thunderstorm is a powerful phenomenon to behold. Viewed from above, mountain ranges, erupting volcanos, and ocean reefs are mesmerizingly majestic.

Please rank the Star Wars movies, from your favorite to your least favorite.
Episode IV – A New Hope
Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Could a robot do the jobs you’ve done?
Robots are gradually performing more duties in space that astronauts have traditionally performed. For example, the Canadian robot Dextre can now perform some maintenance tasks on the outside of the International Space Station that were once performed by spacewalking astronauts. This enhances mission safety and work efficiency.

I foresee the day when astronauts and AI-enabled robots will work in partnership. Like Luke Skywalker, future astronauts will handle the situations that require common sense, creativity, and abstraction. Robots like R2-D2 will oversee data management and spacecraft systems.

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