Robert Thirsk (1953– )

Astronaut

When, in the future, space tourists are spending extended periods of time orbiting our planet it will be in no small part thanks to the pioneering work of McGill grad Robert Thirsk. A veteran of two space flights, Dr. Thirsk has logged over 202 days in space. He holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours).

Dr. Thirsk was in the family medicine residency program at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Montreal when he was selected to join the Canadian astronaut program. He began training in February 1984 and served as backup payload specialist on his first space mission the following year. During this 17-day flight aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, he and his six crew mates performed 43 experiments devoted to the study of life and materials sciences, investigating changes in plants, animals and humans under spaceflight conditions.

Dr. Thirsk served as Chief Astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency in 1993 and 1994. In 1998, he was assigned to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to pursue mission specialist training.

In 2009, Dr. Thirsk blasted off for the International Space Station.  Expedition 20/21 represented a milestone for the Canadian Space Program, as it was the first time a Canadian had taken part in a long duration mission. Dr. Thirsk spent six months as a flight engineer aboard the ISS, working on maintenance and repair of the station, while conducting experiments on behalf of Canadian and international researchers.

Some of Dr. Thirsk’s most important research has been focused on the effect of weightlessness on the heart and blood vessels. His team designed and tested an experimental “anti-gravity suit” that may help astronauts withstand the effects of extended spaceflight on the cardiovascular system.

He currently works with educational specialists in Canada to develop space-related curriculum for grade school students, allowing thousands of young Canadians to experience the thrill of scientific discovery.