Salmon Arm was home to an incredible celebrity, but not one easily recognizable due to his genuine humility.
Bruce Aikenhead “was heralded as a true ‘Space Pioneer,’ and was involved with the Avro Arrow, NASA Mercury and Gemini projects, the Canadarm and finally, as Director General of the Canadian Astronaut Program,” wrote his family in an obituary.
Aikenhead died on Aug. 5 at age 95, a kind, humble man who also happened to be the recipient of the Order of Canada.
He retired to Salmon Arm in 1993.
“Bruce was a wonderful neighbour and a genuine, humble Canadian,” writes Wendy Woodhurst, principal of Shuswap Middle School.
“He was always willing to share stories about his work on the Canadarm, the Avro Arrow, and with NASA – and equally happy to talk about his family, and his dog, Jed.”
She recalls her most memorable moment with him. They were walking their dogs together when he nonchalantly mentioned that he had spoken to Bob Thirsk that morning.
“It took me a moment to realize that Bob Thirsk had called him for advice from the International Space Station!”
Woodhurst says he voluntarily spoke to hundreds of students in School District 83 who listened intently to his accomplishments, which led to him being awarded the Order of Canada.
“It was a privilege to know Bruce and he will be missed,” she said.
During his visits to the schools, it was clear he inspired students. At Salmon Arm West in 2014, he brought a signed photo of astronaut Chris Hadfield and also spoke to the students about other astronauts he knows well.
His illustrious career included being instrumental in NASA (the National Aeronautics Space Administration) allowing Canada to build the Canadarm for the space shuttle.
He told the students: “That was a lot of work, it took quite a few years. Finally the day came when we were down at Cape Canaveral. It had a sleeve put on it…I suggested we have something to suggest it was from Canada.”
Consequently the word ‘Canada’ was clearly and largely visible in photos from space.
At the end of the talk, the teacher asked who would be interested in a career with the aerospace industry. Ten hands immediately shot up.
Aikenhead will also be missed at the Okanagan Science Centre in Vernon.
Executor director Jim Swingle says he contributed greatly there.
“Bruce was responsible for designing our Space for Space Exhibit, including installing the only Fixed Roof Planetarium in the B.C. Interior at the Okanagan Science Centre. He was a creative force behind our exhibits and a dear friend to the Science Centre. We miss him deeply.”
His family writes in his obituary: “His lesson was about gratitude and he humbly attributed his own accomplishments to ‘good luck.’”
A Celebration of Life will be held at the Salmon Arm Art Gallery on Sunday, Sept. 22, from 1 to 3 p.m.