Duncan Cree gets spacey in China 

By Dawn Wiseman

When you come from a town of just over 1,300, getting off a plane in Beijing can be a little intimidating. The first thing Duncan Cree thought was “Wow! What a lot of people!”

Cree’s home is Kanesatake, a Mohawk community just north of Montreal near Oka. He is PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, supervised by department chair Martin Pugh.

This summer he was one of only 10 participants from Canada chosen to attend the twentieth annual Space Studies Program (SSP) offered by the International Space University. The nine-week program, which takes place in a different country each year, provides graduate level training to future leaders in “the emerging global space community.” This year’s SSP was hosted by Beihang University and welcomed 117 students from 26 countries.

Cree received an ISU scholarship of approximately $20,000 for tuition, travel and lodging, and an additional bursary from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation to support his travels.

Cree’s interest in space grew out of his love for aeronautics. He initially trained as an aircraft maintenance technician before pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, he worked for two years at the National Research Council in its aeronautics division, studying aircraft failure.

As his career and studies have advanced, so has his interest in space and aerospace applications. His current research in ceramics may one day be used in both aeronautical and aerospace industries. “At least, that’s what we’re hoping,” he said with a smile.

Cree explained that SSP “focuses on the three Is – international, intercultural and interdisciplinary.” Given the cost of projects in space, most involve these kinds of collaboration. Workshops and lectures therefore focused not only on space but also on cross-cultural communication and teamwork, not just in science but also in law, business and society.

“We had to choose a series of short courses in a topic outside our primary field. I chose business and management.”

Students also had to select one of four collaborative projects to work on over the course of the program.

“They were all so interesting I had a hard time choosing,” said Cree. And no wonder. One of the teams considered how to store the knowledge required to rebuild society after a disaster of planetary proportions. Another looked at traffic management in Earth orbit, and a third at using space-based technologies in earthquake prediction.

Cree’s group worked on developing feasible plans for robotic maintenance of geostationary satellites. As he explained, satellites are sent into orbit with enough fuel for 10 to 15 years of work, but then literally run out of gas. For satellites well above the orbit level of the space shuttle, there is currently no cost-effective means of providing more fuel or maintenance.

While his team eventually settled into a productive rhythm, Cree said the project’s beginning was a little rocky due to the overabundance of Type A personalities in the group.

“Everyone there was used to being in charge,” he said, “I ended up telling them there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians, which seemed to help.”
SSP participants are expected to work hard, “about 10 hours a day, six days per week,” but the experience did have some down time.

There were organized tours of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and its rocket facilities, as well as Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City. Cree took an extra 10 days to travel around the country before returning home.

Magnifying glass

The highlight of his trip: meeting astronauts. Bob Thirsk from the Canadian Space Agency was present, along with Chiaki Mukai from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Michel Tognini from the European Space Agency and China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei.

“He’s like a rock star over there,” said Cree. “You couldn’t get near him. He was always surrounded by security.”

Asked if he’s now considering becoming Canada’s first aboriginal astronaut, Cree laughed. “The guy from the Globe and Mail kept asking me that. [An article by Geoffrey York appeared in July.] I told him that I like to keep my options open.”


Concordia University