Canadian space pioneer Bruce Aikenhead turns 90

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

You probably recognize the astronaut on the right in the photograph below, but Chris Hadfield owes his career in space to the gentleman on the left, Bruce Aikenhead, who hired Chris and the other Canadian astronauts and who was a pioneering founder of the Canadian space program.

Bruce, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, is one of those behind-the-scenes engineers you seldom see, but without whom major projects would not get off the ground. With a career spanning more than half a century, Bruce has seen the remarkable evolution of Canada's involvement in the space program from the very beginning.

Bruce Aikenhead, left, and Chris Hadfield captured at the Okanagan Science Centre in Vernon, B.C. Photo courtesy of Vernon Morning Star
Starting as a radar engineer in 1941, for both the RCAF in Canada and the RAF in Britain and India, Bruce went on to become a flight simulator engineer for both the Canadian CF-100 fighter jet and the ill-fated Avro Arrow project.

When the Arrow was unceremoniously cancelled in 1959, he was one of the Canadian engineers scooped up by NASA to work on their fledgling Mercury Project to put a man in space. Bruce worked with the original "Right Stuff" Mercury 7 astronauts, such as Alan Shepherd and John Glenn, to prepare them for the unknown rigours of space flight.

He returned to Canada to work on several satellite projects with the National Research Council, and even contributed to the controversial HARP project, which was an enormous gun designed to shoot objects directly into orbit. That gun eventually ended up in the wrong hands in the Middle East and almost triggered an international incident.

Bruce lobbied NASA to allow Canada to build a robot manipulator arm for their new space shuttle, and when they agreed, he supervised the development of that program.

He is also the one who suggested that "Canada" be printed in large letters on the side of the arm, along with our flag, so when the shuttle reached space and its television cameras looked back into the cargo bay, the world would immediately see our country's contribution right up front.

When the first Canadarm flew in 1981, NASA managers were not pleased that the only flag visible in the television images coming down from space was Canadian, so they immediately designed an enormous American flag that was pasted to the rear bulkhead of the shuttles for all subsequent flights.

In return for building Canadarm, NASA agreed to provide seats on the space shuttle to Canadian astronauts. Based on Bruce's earlier experience with the Mercury 7, he was the obvious choice to select the first Canadian 7, becoming the director general of our astronaut program.

He had the difficult task of sifting through thousands of eager applicants.

At one point in the round of hiring, when the list of candidates had been whittled down to 20 or so, Bruce had two stacks of files on his desk: one for astronaut contenders, one for rejects.

Every one of them was supremely qualified for the job, so it was a tough choice to decide which pile an application would land on. After making his choices, and on his way home one evening, he thought about one file that he had placed on the reject pile. He thought, There's something about that Hadfield fellow, and the next morning, he moved it over to the contender pile.

The rest is history.

Bruce Aikenhead has been honoured for his work with the Order of Canada, and Canadian astronauts regularly drop by for a visit whenever they are close to Salmon Arm, B.C., where he now lives in retirement.

This past weekend, Chris Hadfield made a special trip to join a tribute to Bruce at the Okanagan Science Centre in Vernon (where Bruce is still on the board of directors). Chris and all the other Canadian astronauts will be the first to admit that while they get all the publicity, it is thanks to the efforts of the tireless, talented people behind the scenes that they are able to reach humanity's loftiest goals.
Happy 90th Birthday, Bruce. Thanks for putting Canada on the cosmic charts.

(And we'll have an interview with Chris Hadfield on Quirks at the end of October, talking about his new autobiography, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth")