Once a secret Soviet base carved out of a treeless, remote tract of grassland in Kazakhstan, the Baikonur Cosmodrome is the cradle of space exploration: It's the home port where the first man-made satellite, Sputnik-1, and Yuri Gagarin, the first space traveller, each lifted off half a century ago.
And soon a Canadian medical doctor will arrive in this complex in the steppes of Central Asia on his own cosmic and historic mission.
On May 27, Robert Thirsk will don a white, blue-trimmed pressurized suit with his name in Cyrillic letters on the collar plate. He and two crewmates will cram themselves into a metal sphere no wider than a compact car - fundamentally the same type of spacecraft that once took Soviet space pioneers into orbit.
This Soyuz capsule will ferry him to the International Space Station, where for the next six months he will live 350 kilometres above Earth. In August, he'll celebrate his 56th birthday there.
"It will be definitely the culmination or the pinnacle of my astronaut career," Dr. Thirsk told the broadcaster Russia Today last week in Moscow, where the crew prepared for its final qualifying tests.
Dr. Thirsk is about to become not only Canada's first astronaut to fly in a Russian spacecraft, but also its first on a long-duration mission. He arrives at the space laboratory just as it finally becomes fully staffed and operational after a decade of permanent human presence. And in June, when fellow Canadian astronaut Julie Payette will visit the station as part of a space-shuttle crew, for the first time two Canadians will be in orbit together.
So his trip is not only a personal peak but a milestone for Canada's space program, and perhaps a new beginning.
This week, the Canadian Space Agency added its first new recruits since 1992, fighter pilot Jeremy Hansen of London, Ont., and Quebec City physician David Saint-Jacques, bringing the total in the corps to 12. When Dr. Thirsk was hired in December, 1983, Pierre Trudeau was still prime minister. And except for him, Canada's six original astronauts all have moved on to other careers - academia for Roberta Bondar, politics for Marc Garneau or heading the Canadian Space Agency for Steve McLean.
It's a sign how much the world has changed in the four decades since the lunar landing that inspired Dr. Thirsk as a teenager that now he will ride a Russian rocket, with training from the same former Soviets who were Neil Armstrong's space-race rivals. Together, they will help put humankind back on the moon.
"It's been an amazing evolution, maybe even a revolution for Canadian exploration," says fellow astronaut Chris Hadfield, who as backup will stand in if, for some reason, Dr. Thirsk is unable to fulfill the mission. "That's really a threshold we're stepping across."
Space planners are currently gearing for a return to the moon by 2020, followed by an eventually landing on Mars - a round trip that would take up to three years. The station has therefore become a test bed for researchers studying how astronauts fare on their own for months and years in harsh, unforgiving extraterrestrial environments.
Inspired by Armstrong
Dr. Thirsk grew up in British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta, the son of a hardware-chain employee who was often on the move. His childhood coincided with the early days of space exploration and he initially became fascinated by space in 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth.
Dr. Thirsk made his decision to become an astronaut at the age of 15 on a camping trip in B.C., the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon - July 20, 1969. "I listened on radio until we could get to a TV set. The images were murky, but I still remember them vividly. And that's when I decided I wanted to become part of the club," he later recalled.
He turned the family Ping-Pong table into a mock lunarscape with rocks and sand. He earned engineering degree from the University of Calgary and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before getting his diploma from McGill University's medical school.