Hero: Bruce Aikenhead

Hero: Bruce Aikenhead

Students inspired by space

Wendy Woodhurst was walking her dog with her friend and neighbour, Bruce Aikenhead, when he mentioned he had received an email…

Wendy Woodhurst was walking her dog with her friend and neighbour, Bruce Aikenhead, when he mentioned he had received an email from Bob Thirsk that day.

“I said, you mean Bob Thirsk who’s in space right now?”

Aikenhead told her yes, the email did, indeed, come from space.

Woodhurst, School District #83’s director of instruction, recounted this anecdote, which occurred during Thirsk’s 2009 international space shuttle flight, to teacher Holly Kallie’s Grade 4/5 class at Salmon Arm West Elementary on Thursday, during a talk by the modest Aikenhead. As part of his presentation, he matter-of-factly told the students of one incredible career milestone after another, which include being a founder of the Canadian space program.

“Mr. Aikenhead is very humble and very modest,” Woodhurst explained. “He’s in touch with astronauts all the time…”

Aikenhead, now 90, received the Order of Canada in 1997 for his achievements. His list of accomplishments would do well to include ‘inspiring young minds.’

Following his presentation, the teacher asked if anyone is now interested in a career with the aerospace industry. About 10 students raised their hands.

The boy whose interest in Aikenhead prompted the class visit is student Dreyden Gaze. He told the Observer afterwards he’d like to work in the aerospace field. Student Anthony Materi also liked the presentation.

“I really like how he told us how he trained some of the astronauts and met them.”

Student Searra Smith asked Aikenhead about astronaut Roberta Bondar, while Eve Maxwell was curious about Julie Payette.

As the man responsible for hiring astronauts, Aikenhead was very familiar with them.

“She was in the office next to mine for quite a few years,” he said of Bondar. “She finally flew in a shuttle mission in January 1992… She was a very clever woman with two or three degrees, she had a lot going for her…”

Aikenhead is equally complimentary of Payette, noting 4,000 people responded to an advertisement for astronauts and she was one of 20 interviewed.

“She is a brilliant person, a singer, she plays the flute, she’s also a scientist, she had been doing some very interesting experimental work,” he said.

Several students asked about astronaut Chris Hadfield who, incidentally, came to celebrate Aikenhead’s 90th birthday with him at the Okanagan Science Centre in Vernon last year.

Aikenhead played a key role in developing the centre’s space galleries and education programs. He showed the students his design drawings for the planetarium, named the Starship Sagittarius.

Student Jason Beauvais said he’d love to have a job that involved zero gravity, referring to a photo of Aikenhead floating on the ceiling of a transport airplane during experiments with zero gravity.

Aikenhead worked on the famous and abruptly cancelled Avro Arrow plane, which was capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. One day in 1959 everyone was told to pack up and go home, he says.

“Not only people in the factory but everyone in the community was affected; it was a terrible thing.”

The National Aeronautics Space Administration, NASA, scooped up some of the Canadians. Aikenhead’s job was to design and build training equipment for the Mercury spacecraft. There he got to know American astronauts such as John Glenn.

Later in his illustrious career, Aikenhead was key in NASA allowing Canada to build the Canadarm for the space shuttle.

“That was a lot of work, it took quite a few years,” he told the students. “Finally the day came when we were down at Cape Canaveral. It had a sleeve put on it… I suggested we have something to suggest it was from Canada.”

Consequently, the word ‘Canada’ was clearly, largely visible in photos from space, thanks to Aikenhead.

“NASA was very pleased with the whole thing, and they invited us to have some Canadians fly onboard.’”

Aikenhead then became the director general of the Canadian astronaut program, selecting the first ‘Canadian-7.’

“We had a great time with the astronauts back in those days, and finally it was time for me to retire,” he says. “People at the National Research Council reminded me I should have retired a while before, but I was having too much fun.”

Student Ethan Elsom summed up Aikenhead’s visit when he said, beaming: “It’s super cool to have a famous Canadian in our classroom.”