Canada's National Astronaut Recruitment Campaign
Imagine a job interview lasting a better part of a year, filled with tests centered on life-threatening situations that promise to push your physical and psychological limits. That's exactly what contenders vying to become Canada's newest astronaut recruits have had to endure. It's been a wild ride filled with thrills, spills and mental gymnastic workouts, all for the chance to land one of only two available astronaut spots.
In May-June 2008, 5351 hopefuls of all ages, from all walks of life answered the initial call put out by the Canadian Space Agency to try out for its National Astronaut Recruitment Campaign. After months of grueling evaluations, by April 2009 the selection process had moved on to the final round of competition, where Canada's next two space flyers would be picked from a field of only 16. These intrepid few have been tested for their creativity, teamwork skills and physical fitness to determine which two have all the 'Right Stuff' to meet the rigors of astronaut training and space flight.
The Call Goes Out
This competition was only the nation's third search in history for astronauts. The first was in 1983, when the Canadian Astronaut Corps was created and the second was in 1992. With upcoming planned retirements among Canada's current veteran pool of space flyers, the timing was felt right to conduct a search for new recruits. The latest astronauts will be looking forward to taking Canada's rightful place aboard the International Space Station for extended periods of time, and participating in Canada's expanding space program that may even look towards possible future missions beyond Earth orbit.
The journey officially launched in March 2008 when the Honourable Jim Prentice, then Minister of Industry, announced at a press conference that the CSA was inviting interested Canadians here and abroad to apply electronically as of May 22 of that year to the astronaut competition. The initial screening process consisted of candidates filling out a series of two increasingly elaborate online questionnaires that were designed to look for the basic requirements for space travel. An expert panel consisting of former CSA astronauts, flight surgeons, HR advisors and engineers spent the summer of 2008 filtering out and evaluating and ranking thousands of applications looking for special attributes that make for a strong contender - such as university degrees in science, engineering or medical fields, professional publications, language proficiencies, pilot license, SCUBA certification, and selecting early on for something as basic as body type. Astronaut candidates must have certain body measurements to be able to fit inside the seats on the Russian Soyuz and the future American Orion spacecrafts that ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
By late October 2008, the rigorous and exhaustive selection process had whittled down the list of potential candidates from over 5000 to just 79 exceptional individuals who had made the cut. With the help of Canadian embassies, consulates, Canadian Research Centre, and Canadian Forces bases, the judges then embarked on a three week marathon of hour-long videoconference interviews-linking up with candidates who were stationed around the world in places like Continental US, Hawaii, France, Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany, and Japan.
Forty-four candidates were then invited to undergo medical exams at different Canadian Forces military clinics across the country. Military Flight Surgeons conducted physical exams similar to what jet fighter pilots would undergo on a regular basis,.
Stamina, physical strength and stress tolerance are the best ways to describe the next phase of the competition which began in mid-January for 39 candidates. First up were a series of aptitude tests that looked at their ability to handle robotics and examined their navigational skills using flight simulators. Certain characteristics are expected of all astronauts including a good memory and reasoning ability, concentration, aptitude for spatial orientation, and manual dexterity.
Candidates then performed fitness tests and entered the swimming pool to evaluate for endurance, strength, tolerance to underwater immersion, and general water proficiency-all must have characteristics for astronauts. Being comfortable in water is vital as they spend countless hours of their training underwater-particularly for spacewalks-inside NASA Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), a 6.2-million gallon pool, in Houston, Texas.
By mid-February 2009, 31 candidates were left in the running and the most demanding part of tests was yet to come.
Space is a dangerous and extreme environment that leaves little or no room or time for mistakes. Astronauts need to follow instructions quickly and react proficiently. To test how quickly and creatively they can think and work with others under life-threatening conditions, damage control and hazard training simulations were next in line for the wannabe astronauts.
At Survival Systems Training Limited in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, each candidate was strapped inside a mock helicopter cockpit, given different sets of last minute escape instructions, before sending them crashing into a swimming pool 20 feet below. Within seconds, the cockpit would quickly fill with water and rollover. The question-did they have what it takes to follow instructions and escape without becoming disoriented and panic? The candidates were given three attempts, each with increasingly more complicated escape scenarios, before being asked to jump from a 27' platform into a simulated rough sea.
Down to the Wire
The final sets of demanding drills had the candidates undergo day long simulated emergency situations inside a mock ship at the Canadian Forces Naval Engineering School - Damage Control Division in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To test how well they can work together as a team, they were exposed to sudden fires and floods of icy, waist deep water. Despite extreme fatigue and the potential for hyperthermia the candidates had to persevere and show they could work as a team to repair the damage as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The cut to 16 of the most outstanding individuals in the competition was made in March 2009. After a press conference announcing the top 16 finalists, the candidates were submitted to a series of medical and psychological tests to evaluate their overall physical health at the Defense Research and Development Canada Toronto facilities and the North York General Hospital in Toronto.
In addition to their technical duties and training, Canadian astronauts help raise public awareness of Canadian space science and technology, and encourage young Canadians to pursue studies and careers in these fields through interviews and public appearances. In April, the finalists were submitted to yet another series of tests to evaluate their overall communications skills and their ability to represent the Canadian Space Agency as a spokesperson. Following this round of evaluations, candidates met with selection committee members for their final interview.
From across the country, they come with multiple degrees, and each with their own exceptional accomplishments. But only two candidates made the final grade: Dr. David Saint-Jacques and Captain Jeremy Hansen . Looking to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Marc Garneau, Chris Hadfield, and Julie Payette, Canada's two newest astronauts will have the exciting prospect of furthering Canada's leading role on the International Space Station and space exploration.
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