Astronaut touches down at Penticton school

Students hear from retired astronaut Marc Garneau during the Liberal House Leader's swing through the Okanagan

Retired astronaut Marc Garneau

Up, up and away.

Grade 6 Students at KVR Middle School had an opportunity this week to hear first hand the out-of-this-world experiences of Canada’s premier astronaut.

Marc Garneau, 62, was actually a crew member aboard three NASA missions starting with the 1984 flight of Challenger and two others on the Endeavour in 1996 and again in 2000.

After showing some slides and describing the training he underwent, it was off to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre and lift off.

Garneau recalled for the students being strapped into his tipped-back seat staring upwards as the final seconds ticked away on the countdown computer.

He told them about his feelings as each of the three orbiter engines were started and then finally the ignition of the huge solid rocket boosters.

“When you’re sitting inside it’s very noisy. You’re shaking a lot because of the power, and at this point you’re going into space whether you like it or not. You’re on your way,” said Garneau, a Liberal MP who was in town Monday on a political swing through the Okanagan.  “You’re going from zero speed to 28,000 kilometres an hour and it’s only going to take eight-and-a-half minutes to get into space, so it’s a pretty quick trip.”

He remembers the heavy feeling in his limbs as the space craft reached maximum velocity and the crew experienced the huge gravitational pull.

And then, all of a sudden after breaking free from the Earth’s atmosphere and the engines ceased, it was the deathly silence inside the cabin he remembers most.

“It’s very quiet and you notice something strange. You’re tied in your seat but feel kind of loose, and the first thing you want to do is take off your seat-belt and float out of your seat and that’s what I did,” said Garneau. “I really wanted to persuade myself that I was in space and I needed to look out the window to do that.

“It really is an incredible, an extraordinary experience to look out that window and realize you’re on top of the world, that you’re in space. You see the blackness around the Earth and you understand that Earth is our home. It’s our only home.”

But also from that vantage point came the realization of how fragile the environment is and the damage already done.

Garneau saw smoke from the intentional burning of the rain forests in Brazil, the endless tracks of clear cutting and the pollution flowing from the rivers into the oceans.

“I’ve been around the planet about 450 times and I’ve had a good look and these are things that change the balance of the Earth,” said the Liberal House Leader. “We have this beautiful home, this baby blue planet that we all share, but we need to be careful so that you and your children will be able to live on this beautiful planet.

“This is our home, our planet, we all come from it and this is where life began and we have to remember these things.”

In addition to his account of the flights, the former president of the Canadian Space Agency also had some words of wisdom for the kids.

Just like crew members on the space shuttle who depend on each other for their lives, he pointed out the importance of teamwork and acquiring those skills which will help them in the future.