The Honourable Marc Garneau is coming to Jasper for the upcoming Dark Sky Festival.
Despite Garneau’s career in exploration, the 74-year-old has never been to Jasper. His wife has fond memories of visiting here when she was a student, but when it comes to the Rocky Mountains, the first Canadian in space has never ventured beyond Banff.
That’s all about to change. On October 12, to help thrust the Jasper Rotary Club’s annual fundraising efforts into the stratosphere, Garneau is speaking at the Forest Park Lodge, where along with a three-course plated dinner, guests can enjoy an intimate evening with the renown astronaut, engineer, military officer and politician.
While he’s here, Garneau will also speak to local students, and he’s scheduled to take in some of the Dark Sky Festival’s flagship events, including the October 14 Symphony Under the Stars.
Ahead of his visit, Garneau spoke with The Jasper Local about his cosmic career, the inspirational nature of space exploration and Canada’s involvement with the next mission to the moon.
Bob Covey: You were chosen for the Canadian Astronaut Program after answering a newspaper ad in 1983. You were selected from more than 4,000 applicants. What made your application stand out?
Marc Garneau: Nobody’s ever told me why I was chosen, but I think I had a number of things that were considered important. First of all I’m an engineer. Astronauts tend to be people chosen from technical backgrounds, either scientists or engineers. Secondly, I had been in the navy and I had the opportunity to sail across the ocean in a 59-foot sailboat with a crew of 13. So in some ways I had lived an experience where you’re on your own, where you have to depend on the other crew members, with everybody working together, to get yourself across the Atlantic Ocean.
BC: When you come to Jasper in a couple weeks I understand part of your talk will focus on some of the amazing yet little-known accomplishments of Canadians in space. Can you give us a sneak preview of some of those accomplishments?
MG: You’re right, I am going to be talking about that because I think Canadians tend to know more about the astronauts but perhaps not so much about the other parts of the space program. One is that we were pioneers in the area of communications satellites. This call is probably going through a satellite. Canada is the second largest country on earth and people live in very remote areas—in the arctic, in the north—and unless you build a whole bunch of microwave towers, which is not always practical, there is no way to communicate with each other. So Canada was a pioneer in having its own national domestic satellite system.
BC: You’ve said that going to space is complex, expensive, but worth it. Why is it worth it? Why should governments continue to pursue space goals when there are arguably so many other problems to attend to on earth?
MG: People don’t disagree with putting spacecraft up there that allow you to communicate around the world. They don’t argue with all the GPS satellites that allow you to know exactly where you are on earth. They think it’s good that we have spacecraft that can look at the weather picture from space. They also agree that having space craft up looking at some of the effects of climate change is all very useful.
Where people don’t always agree is when you send people into space. They said ‘why don’t we send robots?’ I think, based on my almost 40 years of talking to the general public and my fellow astronauts, and particularly to young people, that there’s a very important inspirational factor in sending humans to space. When you see the eyes of a young child light up when you describe being in space, it sets their mind thinking about possibilities in their own lives.
BC: What’s the most memorable or special aspect of your time in space?
MG: Seeing earth from space, in a way you can’t see it from the ground, is an extraordinary experience. In fact it’s the experience that you remember the most afterwords—those images are seared into your mind forever. Secondly, you’re floating. Floating brings out the child in you again. When you’re grown up you’re supposed to be serious, but having the chance to float you can do all sorts of things, like somersaults that go on forever, or you can go down the stairs upside-down, you can sleep on the ceiling. Space is a strange place in some ways but a lot of fun as well.
BC: After your 1984 Challenger mission, the spacecraft and all seven of its passengers were tragically lost in a 1986 accident. I’m wondering where you were during that incident and how that tragedy affected your passion for space exploration.
MG: I was in Houston at the time, in a meeting. I watched it like everybody else, on the television, and witnessed the shocking tragedy of seeing the Challenger, which I’d flown in, blow up 73 seconds after launch. It was a very difficult moment. It was not what anybody had ever seen or expected and there was a certain amount of disbelief. People have often asked me ‘did you at that point decide to retire or did any other astronauts decide to quit?’ I myself flew two more times after that, because if you’re an astronaut you’re passionate about what you’re going to do. You accept the fact that there is some risk. I wanted to continue, despite accepting a certain amount of risk.
BC: We currently have a Canadian astronaut, Jeremy Hansen, gearing up for a mission that will eventually put people back on the moon. Why is the Artemis 2 mission so important, especially in light of the fact the moon was first landed on in 1969?
MG: Well it’s a good question. For Canada it’s incredibly important because this will be the first time a non-American goes as far as the moon. Myself and all the people who have flown in the Canadian Astronaut Program, we orbited the earth—always within a few hundred kilometres of the earth. This is 400,000 kms from earth. It’s incredibly significant for Canada to have somebody on board who will go to the moon and who will be able to tell us about this experience. Back in the 60s it was really a race between the United States and the Soviet Union to see who could get to the moon first and to see who was the more advanced space nation. But there’s still a lot of science to do on the moon. In the long term there may be resources on the moon that are important. But most of all this will be a place where space agencies and their programs will be able to prepare for an even longer journey to the planet Mars. It’ll be a proving ground for eventual missions that go to Mars.
BC: We have a very excited local Rotary Club which will be hosting you here in Jasper. I understand you’re a Rotarian. What drew you to that organization in the first place?
MG: I’m a Rotarian here in Montreal. Rotary Clubs have done wonderful things in the community, the country and abroad. Rotarians are just a bunch of people who want to help make an enormous difference. When I got called by Libby [Weir] of the Jasper Rotary Club I said I’d be delighted to come out. I’ve always wanted to go to Jasper, and with the Dark Sky Festival it’s quite exciting.
BC: I couldn’t help but think about the dark sky when you were talking about all the satellites and communication tools and GPS—some folks say this will eventually amount to light pollution of the starry skies and obscure how we view the celestial bodies. Is this something we should be taking into consideration as we send up more and more satellites?
MG: I very much understand the concern. The reason Jasper is a dark sky preserve is because there is limited light pollution, which is important so that the picture you’re getting from the ground when you’re looking up at the night sky is sharper and clearer. But there is the fact that there are more and more spacecraft in low-earth orbit. If you’re an astronomer I can understand why you’d prefer them not be there. The reality is there has to be a certain amount of coordination, so that there is a control over where satellites orbit and how many are going to be allowed. And that requires an international effort because many countries would like to put spacecraft in orbit. It’s a balance between what advantages you’re gaining from having these additional satellites versus what the downsides are, such as making the night sky a little less astronomy-friendly.
BC: Last question: What would you say to students who don’t always have a clear path to their dreams? What are you going to leave Jasper students with in terms of your inspirational message?
MG: That you can surprise yourself! If you believe that you would passionately like to do something, even though you may not be sure you would be chosen for it, I’m here to tell you that sometimes that does happen. I try to convey to young people in particular that if they feel strongly about something that they should go ahead and not be afraid of not being successful.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Bob Covey // email@example.com