Garneau visits Washington, outer space

Canadarm 2

WASHINGTON – The latest Canadian cabinet minister to visit Washington made a virtual side-trip Thursday to a location far, far away: outer space.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau attended an aviation conference that featured a video link to the International Space Station, and the ex-astronaut interviewed his orbiting peers in front of the event audience.

As a past extraterrestrial traveller himself, Garneau told the crowd that visits to the station these days are longer and harder on the body than they were in his day — he recalled on one occasion going out for dinner the very day he returned to Earth.

Via video, he asked U.S. astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson questions like how they trained for their mission. They told him about their 12-hour workdays and about how they’re experimenting with stem cells and growing lettuce in space — laying the groundwork, in a literal sense, for more distant extra-planetary missions of the future.

Garneau asked Whitson, whom he knew from his astronaut days: “I have to say I’m curious — how did that lettuce taste?”

She replied: “It was outstanding.”

Whitson added that it was her third trip to space but the thrill never wears off: “I still tend to smile from ear to ear.”

Garneau told the story of how he became the first Canadian in space in 1984, in his first of three missions. It was a big enough event at the time that he was a featured guest at a White House dinner involving Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan.

He said the U.S. was grateful for Canada’s contribution of a robotic arm — better known in Canada, Garneau noted, as the “Canadarm.” He asked the astronauts on the station how the latest version of it was holding up.

“The robotic arm was busy (on this trip)” Kimbrough replied. “The robotic arm has worked incredibly well.”

Garneau is the latest of several ministers to visit the U.S. capital to meet his new counterpart in the Trump administration. In his case, it’s Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. He’s also meeting with members of Congress.

The old astronaut’s mission this week: Get to know the U.S. policy-makers who will be implementing reforms to border screening and infrastructure funding, and contemplating new tax, trade and Buy American policies that could affect Canada’s economy.

Garneau now chairs the cabinet committee in Ottawa specifically tasked to deal with Canada-U.S. relations, meaning he will occasionally have a role in files that extend beyond his regular transport portfolio.