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Astronaut Robert Thirsk was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree Monday at the University of Calgary. ((University of Calgary))

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk visited his old alma mater Monday to pick up the degree he was awarded while in orbit.

Thirsk was living on the International Space Station for six months when he was awarded the doctor of laws degree last July.

The University of Calgary engineering graduate travelled more than 125 million kilometres and established a Canadian record for time spent in space. He returned to Earth last Dec. 1 on a Russian spacecraft, which landed in Kazakhstan.

In Calgary on Monday, Thirsk told faculty and students that the benefits of Canada's involvement in space exploration can be found far and wide.

"We make money in space," he said. "In a typical year the Canadian government invests $300 million on space programs. In a typical year … space companies reap revenues of $3 billion."

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Robert Thirsk, top, of Canada, Frank De Winne of Belgium, centre, and Roman Romanenko of Russia board the Soyuz-FG rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last May as they set out for the International Space Station. ((Anatoly Maltsev, pool/Associated Press))

And the investment in space-related technologies has benefits that aren't limited to the aerospace sector, Thirsk said.

"You don't have to look any further than Calgary," he said. "Go to Foothills Hospital. You'll find NeuroArm there. NeuroArm is a surgical instrument, which performs surgery on patients' brains which surgeons with their limited dexterity cannot do."

Thirsk encouraged students to dream big dreams — and to build them on a solid education.

"Dreams don't come true by wishing on a star," the astronaut said. "I'd encourage young Canadians to launch their dreams on a solid educational foundation."

"It's not unrealistic that a graduate of University of Calgary should fly aboard the International Space Station and perhaps one day walk on the surface of Mars. It's easily within the realm of possibility."

Thirsk said six months is a long time to spend in space and he is happy to be back on Earth. But the experience was ethereal. 

"There are no words and no video to properly convey what it’s like to fly like Superman over the Earth," he said. "When we had free time, we didn’t watch videos, and we didn’t read books. We just looked out the window at our beautiful planet. And if I had a dollar for every time I looked out the window when I passed over Calgary, I’d be a rich man."

He said he watched the lights of Calgary pass by beneath him many times while he was in orbit.

"There’s something special about Calgary — the can-do attitude and spirit of exploration — that immediately makes me comfortable and relaxed as soon as I arrive," he said.