FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Bob Thirsk
April 5, 2016
“You need to have audacious dreams.”
In third grade he wanted to be an astronaut. Who didn’t?
Nerdy, hockey player, Bobby Orr fan. Who wasn’t?
If it wasn’t for an advertisement in the paper, he might be a rural New Brunswick physician – but now that I’ve met him, I think he clearly would like be soaring somewhere else at something. Engineering, math, and a lot of humanity …
One afternoon a short while ago I was entertained by an interview subject who is high among the most interesting I’ve interviewed since I began doing this – and I came away with far more notes than I’ve ever taken. In terms of my interviewing – I think he’s my ninth Order of Canada winner, my second U of C Chancellor, my fifth doctor, my tenth engineer … but he’s my first astronaut!
Our paths first crossed, I expect, in high school – at a high school named for a Great Canadian, Lord Beaverbrook, in Calgary. I was class of 1969. He was class of 1971. We lived near one another, have some acquaintances in common, but never met …
He was a smart kid. He was on the wrestling team. No doubt he’s in my yearbook if I could actually find it. We’ve taken very different paths – mine perhaps plodding, his … on a rocket!
In addition to being awed by his accomplishments which are stellar, I came away with much more than an autographed photo of him in a space suit, but with a sense of something beyond his extraordinary successes and obvious work ethic, and beyond his oft repeated comments on the importance of innovation, exploration and education.
He says, “I define myself as an explorer.” Perhaps for a couple of hours I got to be one too – exploring the life and times of Dr. Bob Thirsk. What I came away with is something between ‘appreciating how it was possible for him’, and seeing some things which serve to inspire achievement in anyone. And in me. Oh my, what a ride!
Today there is another high school in Calgary named for a great Canadian astronaut – named for him.
His is a journey of high achieving and driven engineer, physician, astronaut, storyteller …
It began in New Westminster – born there, middle-child of three. Mom was the family ‘organizer’ who raised kids, then worked as a school secretary. Dad was a visionary, and a cheerleader, for Bob – but his work in hardware sales with Marshall Wells caused lots of moves (Olds, Kelsey) before the family settled in Calgary. He was a top student focused on math and science. Hockey took him to Midget AA. Wresting took him to wrestle for Canada. School took to lofty accomplishments, a dream and a newspaper advertisement took him to space ...
“I started my interest in space at school – and finished obsessed. I remember December 31, 1968 – shopping with my family in Sears, watching TV coverage of Apollo 8, I saw the earth rise over the moon!”
He took a year off after high school to travel Europe with his older brother (three years older, also an engineer) – before entering the engineering program at U of C where he earned his B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering. In his 4th year a professor, Dr. Graham Walker suggested he get a medical degree – a way to apply engineering to solve medical problems. M.I.T., an MBA, the to McGill to earn his M.D. (where he met and married Brenda Biasutti). A year and half later, in Dalhousie, NB in the doctor’s lounge on the 2nd page of his newspaper, an advertisement – Canada was looking for astronauts. Four thousand applied for six positions. Bob was number five of those first six.
His astronaut life, family life and ‘residence’ became an exercise in globetrotting – Ottawa, Houston, Europe and Asia. There were to be three shuttle flights involving a Canadian astronaut – and for each, there needed to be a fully trained back-up. “Life for an astronaut’s family is tough. I was elated, my family was elated.”
Bob was trained as a back-up to Marc Garneau. In time the Canadian space program expanded – and Bob got far more than an understudy role, he flew twice. He spent six days in the shuttle Columbia in 1966 (“lots of shaking the first few minutes – six million pounds of thrust, five million pounds of load – then after eight and half minutes of flight, we went from 3G to zero. A funky ride!”). He was aboard the space station for seventeen days in 1996 as a payload specialist performing forty-three experiments – on which half were medical. He was what they call a ‘proxy investigator’ which is an astronaut term for ‘guinea pig’. The missions were substantially ‘successful’ with few technical problems. As he described the G-forces of takeoff he lit up like a Christmas tree of excitement – and no less gripping was his tale of leaving the same Kazakhstan launch pad as Yuri Gagarin had flown from. Scary … the Russian rocket technology hadn’t evolved much from Gagarin’s day.
A lot of time working and training on the ground – and supporting others when they were flying, he’s truly an ‘out of this world twice’ guy. Bob retired after thirty years with the Federal Government. Then the University of Calgary came calling in 1994. “I couldn’t say no.”
In eight of ten provinces, University Chancellor’s are figure-heads. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, because the legislation is different – the Chancellor has ‘chair of board’ and ‘executive committee’ responsibilities for running the university. And they get to do all the ceremonial work too. Seems he loves it all.
The Thirsks have three children – 19, 25, 28. One is studying engineering …Why are you successful? “I’m not the smartest or most skilled but I’m one of the most determined and most focused. There is no second chance in space. You get it right once. There is no room for error. So, much confidence …”
What has held you back? “Time. Things take time. I flew two missions in twenty-eight years. There is a lot of sitting around …”.'
I’m sure the PR folks at the U of C would have preferred me to ask more U of C related questions – and to be fair, Bob kept trying to tell me more, but I was having far too much fun getting him to tell me his stories. I think, however, he is a great walking talking commercial for his university – like bookends, his under-grad degree and now as chancellor – with his focus and determination, who would not want to follow that leadership and be incredibly inspired by him?
How do you see your business – advanced education – going forward over the next quarter?
… we’re in the most dynamic university in the most dynamic city in Canada – and we are moving up the ranks of research universities in Canada. There are no Harvard or M.I.T. equivalents in Canada. But we are doing marvelous work in our key areas of focus.
And over the next five years?
… it will look different. More on-line learning, more interaction with professors. I see a lot of similarities between my role in the space program and the university’s future – diversity, collaboration, extraordinary innovation …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… personal values – and institutional values, vision, delivery of leadership, collaborative, pursuit of excellence. Decision making is easy in every case where it fits with your values.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Bob Thirsk, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I’m a good role model. Determination, focus. Experience. Skills I learned as an astronaut – self managed, cross-cultural sensitivity, teamwork, visionary and attention to detail.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… astronauts are all A-types. We were trained in situational leadership – and that changes depending on situations. By consensus.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I sleep quite well – especially since I retired! I worry about my family, about what I can do to help them ...
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my dad, encouraged me to dream big. Professor Walker who suggested I get a medical degree.
… back packing, recreational shinny hockey, working out 1½ hours a day [yes, he says that’s fun]
What do you read?
… sci-fi, of course, The Art of Followership, the Marm books, leadership books, self-help, historical fiction.
… 2003 M3 BMW, and YES, I follow the speed limit [seriously this was not a convincing statement!]
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