Astronaut Gets Honorary Degree in Space
Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk dons a convocation cape as he receives an honorary degree from the University of Calgary on July 8, 2009.
Credit: NASA TV.

A Canadian astronaut orbiting Earth received an honorary degree - a first in space - on Wednesday during a long-distance call from his college alma mater.

The University of Calgary in Alberta bestowed an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on Robert Thirsk, an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency who is currently living aboard the International Space Station. Thirsk, 55, is a graduate of the university and Canada?s first long-term resident of the space station.

?This is indeed a special honor for me,? Thirsk said via a video link as his crewmate, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, presented him with a convocation cape aboard the station. ?If I can?t be in Calgary, I think the second best place to be is in space.?

Thirsk performed a somersault in weightlessness to show his excitement and answered questions from students at the university.

A veteran of two spaceflights, Thirsk holds several degrees in engineering and medicine, but received his first degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary in 1976. He later obtained degrees in medicine and business, and joined Canada?s astronaut corps in 1983. Thirsk is from New Westminster, British Columbia in Canada, is married and has three children.

Thirsk is part of the space station?s first full six-person crew. He arrived in late May alongside a Russian cosmonaut and Belgian astronaut - representing the European Space Agency - to double what was then a three-man crew on the station. In addition to Thirsk, the station is currently home to two Russian cosmonauts, and one astronaut each from the United States, Japan and Belgium.

?To say we are watching this mission with great pride and interest is an understatement,? University of Calgary President Harvey Weingarten told the guests - including nearly 100 teenagers attending university summer camp programs - at Thirsk?s degree presentation. ?Dr. Thirsk is a tremendous ambassador for the University of Calgary and for Canada. His accomplishments are beyond impressive and he is a thoroughly genuine and compassionate person.?

Thirsk is the first of three Canadians to fly in space this year. On Saturday, NASA?s shuttle Endeavour is due to launch seven astronauts toward the station, including Canadian spaceflyer Julie Payette, who will make her second spaceflight. When Payette launches aboard Endeavour, two Canadians will be in space at the same time for the first time in history.

Later this year, a Canadian space tourist - Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Lalibert? - will also fly to the station under a multimillion-deal between Russia?s Federal Space Agency and the U.S. firm Space Adventures. Like Thirsk, Lalibert? will launch aboard a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft from the Central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

After receiving his degree, Thirsk stressed the importance of education to Canada?s space exploration efforts.

?When I was a student at University of Calgary 33 years ago, I had a dream of one day flying in space and being an astronaut,? he said. ?Fulfilling that dream is a great feeling. Education really is the key to making your dreams come true.?

Thirsk is slated to return to Earth this fall to complete a six-month mission at the space station.

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