Happy 90th Birthday greetings to Bruce Aikenhead, a Canadian Space Pioneer

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By Diane Bates

Alan, chris & BruceBruce AikenHead, former Director General of the Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Program, recently celebrated his 90th birthday by officially opening the “Space for Space“ galleries at the Okanagan Science Center in Vernon, BC. Bruce had been actively involved in the design and building of the space exhibit.

There to introduce Bruce was Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and Alan Davis, Program Manager of the 1992 Astronaut Recruitment Program. This event marked the first time in 21 years that Bruce, Chris and Alan had the opportunity to reconnect since Chris’ appointment as an astronaut candidate in 1992.

Chris chronicled Bruce’s lifetime of excellence, dedication and professionalism, starting with his first job as an Engineer at Canadian Aviation Electronics specializing in simulation. From there he worked on the Avro Arrow program until it was cancelled by the Diefenbaker government in 1959. The newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (i.e. NASA)  hired Bruce and another 40 other Canadian engineers from the Avro Arrow program. He was assigned to the Mercury program where he helped to train the original 7 astronauts.

The Mercury Seven astronauts, as they were then known, were Alan Shepard, Gus Grisssom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton. Sadly, Scott Carpenter passed away the week after the tribute to Bruce. John Glenn is the only remaining `Mercury Seven` astronaut still alive.

Bruce mentioned in his speech how the word “astronaut” came to being. The Russians had already adopted the word cosmonaut as a title for their first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Astronaut seemed like an obvious translation.

Following his NASA experience Bruce returned to Canada to work on the Canadarm, again putting Canadian expertise front and center on the world stage. It was his idea to stamp the word Canada in large print on the arm alongside the Canadian flag.

Eventually Bruce became Director General of the Canadian Astronaut Program. Marc Garneau was amongst the first group of Canadian astronauts to be hired and he in fact became Canada’s first man in space. Since retiring, Bruce relocated to Salmon Arm, BC where he has been very active in the community, specifically in the space exhibit of the Okanagan Science Center. Also, he was awarded the order of Canada in 1997.

Bruce accepted the many birthday greetings extended to him at the event and thanked Chris for his sincere and generous introduction in which he chronicled some of Bruce’s major achievements during his exceptional career. He also thanked Alan and I for making the trip to BC to share in the celebrations.

Alan remarked that Bruce and Chris share a wonderful, and quintessentially Canadian trait: a high degree of competence mixed with a high level of humility (surprising to some with especially gifted people).

Both Bruce and Chris reiterated the important role of science centers like the one in Vernon in inspiring our children to explore and to open their minds to diverse fields of interest. Chris explained that he decided that he wanted to become an astronaut when he first held a piece of moon rock in his hand!

While visiting Vernon, Alan and I had the honour to spend a day with Bruce at his home in Salmon Arm. What a day! It was fascinating to hear about Bruce`s experiences during his career.

Bruce told us the story about what started out as a normal workday on February 20th 1959 when he was working on the Avro Arrow project. Sometime during the morning, there was an announcement over the PA system. Apparently, the wives of some workers had called them with the news that they heard on the radio the Avro Arrow project had been cancelled. As this had not been confirmed, everyone was asked to carry on with their work. Later that day there was another announcement over the PA system. It had been confirmed, the Avro Arrow project was cancelled and everyone was to go home. With this announcement over the PA system, 14,528 people working on the Avro Arrow lost their jobs. No wonder this day became known as `Black Friday` in the Canadian aviation industry.

Meanwhile, a brand new organization called NASA was looking for engineers. They heard about the engineers laid off in Toronto and came to Canada to recruit them. Within a few weeks, 25 Avro Engineers were working for NASA. Bruce was hired because of his simulation training expertise acquired when he was working for CAE. And that`s how Bruce ended up training NASA`s “Mercury Seven“ astronauts.

Bruce showed Alan and I his photos, awards and memorabilia from his long and rewarding career. This included the Order of Canada which he was honoured to receive from Romeo Leblanc in 1997.

Bruce, Happy Birthday and I wish you many more. It is an honour to know you. Thank you for being such a wonderful person.

You make us very proud to be Canadian, eh?

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