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 


Catherine Fortin Major is a communications associate with Impact Public 
Affairs in Ottawa.