Astronaut Robert Thirsk seeks out Sauder to take off in new career in management


In the months before NASA’s last space shuttle returned to Earth and the historic shuttle program came to an end, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk was making plans for the next stage of his working life. 

But what could compare to a career that allowed him to experience life on the International Space Station for six months – the longest period in outer space for any Canadian astronaut?

Thirsk says the next frontier he will boldly explore will be the world of executive management.

“Astronauts and executive managers have similar mindsets,” he says in a telephone interview from his office at NASA’s Johnson Center in Houston, Texas. “There will be a bit of a transition for me going from one profession to the other, but I don’t think it will be as tough as you might think.”

He explains that management and astronautics require similar skill sets and personality profiles, from teamwork and leadership abilities to a sense of adventure and determination not to accept failure.

However, being a highly-educated astronaut, Thirsk knows that he requires some additional training to get the hard skills he needs to take off as an executive manager. This is what brought him to Sauder to take the course Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) through Executive Education

“British Columbia is a world leader in creating public-private partnerships to provide infrastructure for public services. And, from my search for a PPP course, I determined that Sauder is the world leader in this particular kind of executive education,” says Thirsk.

At first, it seemed that his busy schedule at NASA would not allow him the time to travel to Vancouver to take the course. But after a call to the instructor, Sauder Senior Associate Dean Tom Ross, he was able to work out an innovative way of attending the class.

“When I talked with Tom Ross he very graciously offered to include me by video conference. So out of 25 or 30 people in the class, I was the one outsider,” says Thirsk. “I just dialed in from NASA and there I was.”

Thirsk sees public-private partnerships as a tremendous growth area for the kind of work taking place with increasing frequency in outer space. He explains that space agencies worldwide, including NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, are turning over low Earth orbit activities, including Earth observation, telecommunication satellites and cargo transportation services, to the private sector.

“International space agencies should now be venturing beyond Earth, back to the moon and to asteroids or Mars. However, government-funded agencies don’t have sufficient resources to manage routine operations in low earth orbit as well as to initiate all of this exciting exploration far away from Earth,” says Thirsk explaining that PPPs could be the ideal solution.

Figuring out the balance for public-private partnerships in space could be tough, but the astronaut feels like his time at Sauder helped prepared him to take on this kind of challenge.

“The course was excellent,” says Thirsk. “The coordinators masterfully drew together the right people from B.C.’s managers who have experience with PPPs. We covered the fundamentals of what they are, when you might want to consider a PPP over the conventional ways that governments procure services, legal and engineering aspects and how to mitigate risks. It was just perfect for what I wanted.”

Image 1: Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Expedition 20/21 flight engineer, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Image 2: Image of the International Space Station taken during a spacewalk on July 12, 2011. Photo credit: NASA