Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Marc Garneau, head of the Canadian Space Agency, reviews the agency's accomplishments and activities planned for 2004 during a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2004 in Longueuil, Que. Garneau said he hoped to have a Canadian exploration mission on Mars. (Paul Chiasson/CP/Paul Chiasson/CP)
Marc Garneau, head of the Canadian Space Agency, reviews the agency's accomplishments and activities planned for 2004 during a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2004 in Longueuil, Que. Garneau said he hoped to have a Canadian exploration mission on Mars. (Paul Chiasson/CP/Paul Chiasson/CP)

Profile: The accidental astronaut Add to ...

Canada's first man in space wants you to know he is just as likely as anybody else to fall on his rear-end when he goes ice skating.

"The fact is, I'm not a good skater. I'm just as klutzy as the next person," Marc Garneau says. "And if I worry about that, I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself."

More related to this story

Fame can be a heavy burden and Garneau says he has to accept that sometimes in public he won't be able to live up to his larger-than-life heroic image.

"I was John Doe before 1984. I had absolutely no notoriety whatsoever. I was just a face in the crowd. That was a very big adjustment," says the 52-year-old former astronaut and newly appointed president of the Canadian Space Agency, the Canada's equivalent of NASA.

"I have to be a good role model for the rest of my life. That's a lot of pressure because if I screw up once, I'm going to disillusion a lot of people."

Garneau, who became the first Canadian in space nearly 20 years ago, returned with his family to Montreal after a long stretch in Houston as an astronaut at the Johnson Space Center.

Retired from flight duty, Garneau now views the sunset over the Montreal skyline from his office windows -- or sunrise, since he's at his desk by 7:30 a.m. to begin 11-hour workdays.

He's greyer, but still has the square-jawed boyishness that Canadians saw when he first went into space in the eighties. And he still talks about space exploration in earnest, straightforward tones.

Garneau is an accidental astronaut, a third-generation military officer who never dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a kid because he didn't think Canadians would ever get to fly in space.

"I only got interested in space, to be honest with you, when I saw the ad that said Canada was looking for astronauts," he says. "Before that, I didn't think Canadians would ever fly into space."

Initially, he thought he would get to travel to space just once. Instead, he is the Canadian who has racked up the most shuttle missions (three) and spent the most time in space, the equivalent of nearly a month in orbit.

Other Canadian astronauts dreamed of becoming space travellers from their earliest childhood years after seeing the first space missions on television. Chris Hadfield and Bob Thirsk were inspired while watching Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. Julie Payette grew up with an Armstrong poster in her bedroom.

When Armstrong stepped on lunar soil in July, 1969, Garneau got the news on shortwave radio as he sailed the English Channel on a moonlit night, a midshipman on summer training who had just crossed the Atlantic in a 59-foot yawl with 12 other crewmen.

Born in 1949 in Quebec City, he was the second of four sons of a French-Canadian military officer and an anglophone mother from New Brunswick.

He had a peripatetic childhood, following the postings of Brigadier-General André Garneau, from the Canadian base at Soest, West Germany, to a NATO posting in London, England.

His own military career has seen him in various parts of Canada, from Kingston to Ottawa to Halifax, where two appointments made him as much a product of Nova Scotian naval tradition as Quebec.

Even in the fall of 1981, as the second space shuttle mission deployed the Canadian-made robot arm for the first time, Garneau, a 32-year-old naval engineer, watched on television from Halifax, unaware that, within two years, he would be selected from more than 4,000 applicants to become his country's first man in space.

"It was really tough being selected and having so much expectation put on you. I haven't done it yet, but people are lavishing their attention on me. What if I screw up?" he says. "There was this tremendous pressure on me beforehand because people expected me to make Canada proud."

Single page
 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories