Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Reading: a Canadian astronaut’s adventure of a lifetime

Catherine Fortin Major, Ottawa Citizen
Published: Monday, August 28, 2006

In the next few days, Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean will blast off into space for the second time in his life. Aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis destined for the International Space Station, MacLean will become the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm2 and the second to perform a spacewalk.


If you bumped into Steve MacLean at your local public library, you probably wouldn’t guess that he is an accomplished laser physicist, or a career astronaut for that matter. His profession may be surprising to some because MacLean’s well-rounded attitude and his appreciation for literature defy the common stereotype of the narrowly-focused and introverted scientist. In fact, Steve credits his passion for science to the sense of adventure that was instilled in him at a very young age through reading. “You start reading,” he says, “and it becomes the adventure of a lifetime if you continue to do it.”

MacLean claims his many trips as a child to the Ottawa Public Library to read books like Treasure Island, Sinbad and the Seven Seas and Never Cry Wolf inspired him to want to be a part of something meaningful and special as an adult. He also credits reading to allowing him to see the bigger picture in life and getting a better understanding of different points of view and cultures.

“Reading had a huge impact on my space career,” says MacLean. “And I find that people who read a lot—even among the astute engineers and scientists here at the Space Agency—are often the most interesting people.”

Contrary to many of his present colleagues, MacLean admits that his desire to be an astronaut did not originate as a child. Instead, it was his co-workers in the science field who encouraged him to apply to the Space Program in 1984. In fact, when Steve wasn’t in the library, he spent much of his time in the gym and eventually earned himself a spot on the Canadian National Gymnastics Team. One day, he wondered how good he could become at something else if he worked as hard at it as he did with gymnastics. So he decided to try a little experiment where he studied mathematics as hard as he could and read up on everything that was related to that subject. Needless to say, he eventually became pretty good at math and decided to make a career out of it.

Despite focusing his academic studies on math and science, MacLean says reading has had, and continues to have, an important place in his life and played a central role in developing him as the well-rounded person that he has come to be. As a graduate student at York University, Steve admits to taking breaks from his technical study in the computer labs by going to the library, which was next door. There, he would make his way to the mountain climbing or Arctic explorer sections, open any book at random, and learn about something new that was totally unrelated to his scientific course of study. MacLean saw this as a relaxation break as well as an opportunity to advance his career by helping him “better relate in the world,” as he puts it.

And being able to “better relate in the world” is precisely why MacLean feels reading is so critical to a child’s development. “Reading really has made a difference for me,” he says, “and it’s really why I want to be a part of what the Canadian libraries are doing.” Steve’s latest projects involve an essay contest for students aged nine to fourteen titled, “Launch Your Future with Reading,” as well as the conception of an electronic library for children’s space-related works and other educational materials which will be housed on the Canadian Space Agency website. By participating in projects like these, the astronaut hopes that young people will make the link between reading, science and creativity, and realize that reading can have a huge impact on their future, as it did with his.

Specifically, MacLean’s message to students is that you don’t have to be an Einstein to succeed. “You just have to be a journeyman who works hard,” he says. And according to MacLean, to be a true journeyman or journeywoman you have to hit up your local public library and read. Through his work with the public libraries, Steve hopes kids will learn that seeing the big picture and understanding how and why people think differently is forever beneficial, regardless of the career—or planet—you choose to work on.


For more information about the Launch Your Future with Reading Contest, visit the CLA website at, and for more information about Steve MacLean and his mission, visit the Canadian Space Agency website at

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