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."

There was also awkwardness when he and his backup, Thirsk, arrived in Houston to begin training. Because the shuttle's robot arm had performed so well, NASA offered Canada a chance to fly some of its citizens. The first Canadian in orbit, however, would only be a payload specialist, NASA-speak for someone considered a guest passenger.

Aside from the experiments he would tend, Garneau was taught little about the shuttle's systems other than how to cook his food, prepare his sleeping berth, use the toilet and escape the spacecraft in an emergency.

That minimal training enabled him to go within months of his selection. At the time, however, some American astronauts had been waiting as long as 17 years. Garneau said later he felt "eyes burning through my back" when he walked down the halls.

"I felt I should keep a low profile because some of these people are probably resentful of the fact that, having been selected less than a year before, I flew 10 months later. That was viewed as parachuting by the professional astronauts."

He was the second non-American to lift off on a NASA aircraft before it became common to have French, Italian, Japanese or Russian crew members aboard the shuttle.

Garneau's first mission, which lifted off Oct. 5, 1984, was, from a technical or scientific point of view, uneventful, one of five launched that year.

Each day, Garneau was supposed to use his brief communications with the grounds to send results from 10 on-board Canadian experiments. Canadian reporters on the ground, however, wanted more pizzazz.

"They wanted to have a half-hour with Marc Garneau in space every day of the mission. Marc, what are you doing? What have you been eating? Have you gone to the bathroom? They wanted that, close and personal. And yet I had been told I would have a few minutes per day, mainly to send down experiment results."

He came across as such a guarded, cautious man that one press wag, alluding to The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's book about astronauts, dubbed Garneau The Right Stiff.

On the ground, the spotlight on his family shone just as intensely. It felt, Garneau says, as if every day of that year a media crew was at their home, setting up television lights, microphones and reflectors.

The public attention meant he posed for magazine covers dressed in clothes he would never wear and was asked whether he vomited in space. (For the record, he was often seasick as a sailor, got sick during his training flights, but did not suffer in orbit.)

No incursion into his private life was greater than in 1987, when his first wife, Jacqueline Brown, from whom he had separated, committed suicide. For a while, the Canadian astronauts boycotted The Ottawa Citizen, the newspaper that first reported the news.

It was a soul-searching time for Garneau, as he wondered whether his public life had affected his ex-wife, whether he should continue his grinding, high-pressure career.

For five years, he was a single father who juggled parenthood with the workaholic life of an astronaut. "That was a tough one. The twins were 11 years old now so that was easier than if they were 4 or 5. But it was tough."

He eked by, with the help of his parents, and the arrival of his second wife, Pamela Soame, whom he met in 1988 and married in 1992. Still, Garneau did at one point wonder if he should quit the space program. "I did think about it. But it was never to the point where I went over the top and said, 'No, I'm not going to do this any more.' "

Professionally, those years were also marked by uncertainty. Challenger, the orbiter that carried him into space, blew up in 1986, killing all seven on board.

Garneau thought flights would resume within a year and stuck around to help prepare the scheduled shuttle missions of fellow Canadians Roberta Bondar and Steve MacLean. In fact, it would be 1992 before those two went into space.

By 1992, as U.S. plans to establish a permanent space station grew into an international project, Garneau was seconded to NASA as a mission specialist, a full-fledged astronaut.

He moved to Houston and made a second flight in 1996, a less-burdened, less public affair.

Garneau's third and last flight was a year ago. The media attention never matched the frenzy of his first foray into space -- ironic since his contribution was key to the mission, which itself was essential to the space station's future.

He operated the Canadarm to install a 17-tonne, bus-sized scaffolding that held two solar panels to power the space station. The slow, precise task required precision in the millimetres and Garneau did it flawlessly, despite having to grapple the structure away from its centre of gravity and working without clear, direct sight, relying only on video images.

Even before the mission, he was indicating he would retire from flight duty. He is in his 50s, and another mission would have been several years down the road. He was looking for new challenges. "As you get older, your ability to think quickly and react quickly diminishes, but your ability to think deeply, I believe, improves."

In the end, Garneau, the well-travelled sailor, grew weary of the brash, gung-ho world of test pilots and of life in Houston's suburbs. "Texans think differently from Canadians. It's a subtle things. I went down when I was 43. Maybe by the time you're 43, if you're Canadian, you're Canadian for life.

"So it's nice to be back home. We have a more reserved and liberal way of looking at things. Americans, certainly in the astronauts crowd, are very, very patriotic. And, I think, consequently some times, a bit narrowly focused," he says.

"They're people who mean very well. We had wonderful friends there. But they don't look at the world in complex terms. Everything tends to be black and white. It's very much based on the American model of patriotism and love of country and love of God. It is, perhaps, not the same sort of richness and complexity I tend to feel more comfortable with, living in Canada."

Last February, the Garneaus moved back to Quebec. "It was a real shock to arrive back on the first of February. Totally different weather. We arrived smack in the middle of winter, leaving a place where winter is the only really nice time of the year."

He still gets recognized every day and knows that even when he heads to the hardware store on Saturday, he has to be properly groomed and ready to answer questions about "what it was like."

Garneau has two more children with his wife, Pamela, and one of them, his five-year-old, is learning to ice skate, so he's well on his way to "becoming a Canadian."

Single page
 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories