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Remarkable Teachers

Astronaut Steve MacLean recalls Maurice Rodrigue and Nan Wedderspoon

Steve MacLean

Four hundred kilometres above the earth's surface, slicing through space at 466 kilometres per minute, Steve MacLean floats in the space shuttle. The earth dominates the sky above, the universe is spread out before him and stars slip by one after the other. This awe-inspiring perspective is a privileged view known only to a few hundred humans.

“You get an amazing sensation of hope and joy. Hope for our humanity.”


This August, astronaut Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency will be enjoying the view for a second time when he flies to the International Space Station on the Atlantis shuttle this August. On the 12-day trip MacLean will become the second Canadian to walk in space and, when the crew adds trusses to the station and deploys solar-array panels, he will be the first Canadian to operate Canadarm 2.

His previous voyage, aboard space shuttle Columbia in October 1992, made MacLean the third Canadian astronaut – following Marc Garneau and Roberta Bondar.

Recalling the wonders of that earlier trip, MacLean describes a meteorite shower. “It passed me going up toward the earth. It burns more intensely as it passes through the atmosphere.”

Laughing, he recalls that he thought simultaneously, “This is a thing of beauty,” and ”I'm glad it's over there and not coming through here.”

MacLean also recalls that on launch day in 1992, as he stood on the platform before entering the shuttle, he was thinking of all the people who had made it possible for him to be there, including his teachers.

“Rodrigue, Armstrong, Edwards, Wiseman, Lemky, MacGregor …”

MacLean feels that all his teachers affected him. Although he really enjoyed school and did okay, he says that he was quiet and didn't particularly stand out. But there was at least one teacher at Ottawa's Merivale High School in the late 1960s who thought MacLean was doing more than okay: Maurice “Mo” Rodrigue taught MacLean physical education from Grades 9 to 13.


MacLean with Maurice (Mo) Rodrigue

“Mo really believed in me. I was a small kid competing in gymnastics on weekends. I wanted to join a gymnastics club in downtown Ottawa but my dad wouldn't let me unless my marks were super high. Mo helped a lot and I ended up joining the club,” says MacLean. “He let me come in early in the morning before class so I could work on the gymnastic equipment – pommel horse, high bars, tumbling – and in Grade 11 he even gave me the school's pommel horse to take home for the summer.”

“Rodrigue had a balanced approach,” MacLean explains. “He taught me the discipline needed to become good at something. And he believed in the importance of having fun while improving – to welcome a victory, accept defeat and find pleasure in both.” MacLean found it is more important to learn about life than to win a game.

“One day, MacLean broke his foot on the trampoline just before a competition,” recalls Rodrigue. “He had a cast on his foot but said he could still do the parallel bars and high bars and he did. He tied for first place on the parallels, so two of them did their routines again, and he won!”

“He believed in the importance of having fun while improving.”

MacLean says Rodrigue transmitted important life skills and had a major influence on how he approaches what he does. “I became pretty good in gymnastics because I learned to work hard. Later, I found that if I worked as many hours on math as I did in gym, I could achieve big there too.”

“I am really proud of him, mostly because he is such a wonderful person,” says Rodrigue. “He's the kind of person you want to know.”

MacLean was also inspired by his Grade 11 and 12 English teacher, Mrs. Wedderspoon. “My attitude was we can speak and read English so why do we have to study it,” recalls MacLean. “She really changed that for me. Most of us hated Shakespeare and she brought him to life. She was so vibrant. She would stand up in front of the class and use her British accent, when appropriate, to act out parts. She was a bit like Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poet's Society. She made me appreciate the importance of being able to communicate well in English,” he says.

MacLean later received a doctorate in physics from York University. He has been Chief Science Advisor for the International Space Station and Director General of the Canadian Astronaut Program. After his training as a NASA mission specialist ended in 1998, he was appointed to technical tasks at NASA, where he now serves as CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) for both the International Space Station Program and the Shuttle Program. He lives in Houston with his wife and three children.

MacLean credits all his teachers for giving him such a valuable educational experience.

“When I compare myself with some people I met at Stanford and people from China who studied in English, I feel a difference,” he says. “Although they know a lot, and that is important in certain domains, their education was so memory-oriented that they sometimes miss the common-sense understanding that really makes a difference when approaching problems. For example, in math and physics you really need to understand the fundamentals, the simple formulas. Not just know them but really understand them.”

When asked if he has a message for teachers, MacLean replies, “It's important to have a well-balanced, diversified and open-minded approach to education. We need to teach fundamentals and technical skills and the social responsibility that goes with them, so that students understand the impact of what they are studying – how it affects the rest of the world, whether industry or the environment.”

MacLean explains, “We tend to divide the worker from the manager. It becomes too divided. Many industries, even the space industry, have become too specialized and segmented. We even have different vocabularies from one side of a project to the other. This is a real problem. It's important to teach high school and university students the integrated skills – and not just parts of them – that are required to do different jobs.”

“How does it feel to know you will soon be walking in space?”


“Are you nervous?”

“The whole thing is risky business. I know that it could be my last day, but I push that aside to do my best and enjoy the ride.”

Astronaut and laser physicist Steve MacLean's research has included work on electro-optics, laser-induced fluorescence of particles and crystals and multi-photon laser spectroscopy.

Maurice Rodrigue spent 33 years as a teacher and principal before retiring in 1998. He co-owns Career Coaching Centre in Ottawa, where he works with a team that includes a former student.

Nan Wedderspoon retired in 1993. Since then she has volunteered for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the intensive care unit of the Ottawa Civic Hospital and as a tutor for special-needs students. She now enjoys playing bridge and reading spy and mystery novels in Nepean.

Student competitions

One way for your students to make the NASA connection may be FIRST Robotics.

The FIRST (Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) Robotics Competition teams students with professionals to solve engineering design problems. For the past five years the NASA Robotics Alliance Project (RAP) has supported participation in FIRST by providing grants to high school teams and sponsoring FIRST regional competitions.

Each January, with only a standard kit of parts and rules, teams have six weeks to build a robot. Everyone takes the team motto, Student Designed, Student Built, very seriously. While staff supervisors share expertise and encourage creativity, students are responsible for designing, building and programming their robot and documenting the project.

In 2006, more than 28,000 students in over 1,125 teams from Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Israel, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States participated in the competition. The Greater Toronto Regionals, held March 30 to April 1 in Mississauga, welcomed 73 teams in a high-energy, high-tech spectator sporting event. Awards are given for design, programming, sportsmanship and enthusiasm.

For more information about FIRST robotics, go to www.usfirst.org or robotics.nasa.gov.