CSA Astronaut Program
Sep 21, 2017

Given the public response each time the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) calls for astronaut applications, it is clear that thousands of us feel that we possess the necessary qualifications, however, only a few make it through the selection process. The very first campaign, in 1983, selected Marc Garneau, Roberta Bondar, Steve MacLean, Ken Money, Robert Thirsk, and Bjarni Tryggvason. In 1992, Chris Hadfield, Julie Payette, Mike McKay and Dave Williams were the four selected from more than 5,000 who applied during the second recruitment campaign. The third recruitment campaign added, in 2009, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques from, again, some 5,000 hopefuls. After the fourth astronaut recruitment campaign wrapped up in 2017 (after a year of demanding tests and evaluations), Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey had been selected from almost 4,000 applicants to undergo astronaut training. In fact, only 14 individuals have been chosen to date. 

This 2005 NASA photo shows Canadian Astronaut Marc Garneau training in simulated microgravity in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, in preparation for the STS-97 mission to the International Space Station. During NASA mission STS-41-G, Garneau became the first Canadian in space.

So what does it take to be chosen as a Canadian astronaut? A review of the few who have been selected over the years, shows that a military background (preferably in aviation) can be a significant advantage. Adding an engineering, science or medical specialty will improve prospects.

It all comes down to a combination of being able to think quickly but calmly in the most challenging and even potentially deadly situations. It’s what Tom Wolfe described as “The Right Stuff” in his 1979 treatise on the early days of the space race.

While Canada has a long and proud tradition in space, having launched its first satellite in 1962, the Alouette 1 communications platform, we didn’t put an astronaut into orbit until 1984. That was long after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (one of 200 fighter pilots who applied for the job) became the first human in orbit in April 1961.

Gagarin orbited for only 108 minutes but it stoked the competitive fires in the United States, which put John Glenn, a Marine Corps aviator and eventual Senator, up for three orbits in February 1962. Like Gagarin’s, it was essentially a “spam in a can” mission which permitted little if any onboard control of the spacecraft.

Even as the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued to try to outdo each other in the “final frontier”, the intervening years saw increased Canadian activities in space, most notably through the development and deployment of the robotic Canadarm, a key element in the development of the International Space Station (ISS). Canadian technology and expertise continue to play a key role, whether aboard the ISS, within the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or at home in the private sector. Former NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, welcomed Canada’s continued involvement in the ISS, which he said would help “the international research community to accomplish important goals, including cutting-edge research and technology development that will enable human and robotic exploration of destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including asteroids and Mars.”

Marc Garneau, a former navy Captain, was in the initial cohort of six Space Shuttle payload specialists confirmed in December 1983 by a National Research Council committee (the CSA wasn’t set up until 1990).

A combat systems engineer, Garneau was seconded to NASA for astronaut training and became the first Canadian astronaut in space. As a mission specialist aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1984, he tested a vision system which effectively gave the Canadarm its operational eyes.

Garneau went on to become CSA president, but resigned in November 2005 to enter politics, winning his Montreal seat in 2008. After seven years of parliamentary apprenticeship on the opposition benches, he was appointed to the Liberal Cabinet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the party won the October 2015 election.

During that election campaign, Garneau was asked what surprised him most about being in space. “What you aren’t ready for – on an emotional and intellectual level – is how looking down at Earth will profoundly affect you,” he replied. “When you go around the planet and look down, you think about the fact that this is the cradle of humanity, that this is a place where seven billion people, 200 countries, live side by side, that we share this place and there’s nowhere else to go.”

He evidently remains a bit of a space junkie: “I would love to see the world’s space programs continue toward sending humans to an asteroid or to Mars […]. And one of the things that excites me most about space is that we can go up there and put spacecraft in orbit with sensors that will help us measure the health of our planet, which is becoming particularly important.”

That almost spiritual sensibility about the global environment is common among astronauts, regardless of their nationality or training. They include the most recent Canadian in orbit, Chris Hadfield, whose 21 years in the astronaut corps included Canada’s first space walk (2001) and a stint as the ISS Commander on his third mission (2012-2013) which lasted five months.

“The stuff we’ve been discovering and seeing in space just recently, which is unfolding into our general understanding of the world, has been absolutely amazing,” Hadfield (a former CF-18 Hornet pilot) said recently. That includes how “we can look at hurricanes like Harvey and Irma” which ravaged the Caribbean and southern U.S. in August and September 2017.

“But there are way stronger telltales of the world climate changing than the frequency and severity of hurricanes. There are the fires happening in the West. It doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate the human impact of climate change. This isn’t any sort of political talk I’m giving, but there are a lot of really important issues that we need to address,” he asserts.

Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian to walk in space (2001). In 2012, as Commander of the ISS, he famously captured the world’s attention when he broadcasted himself singing in space. (Photos: CSA)

Nothwithstanding what could be interpreted as a political statement, Hadfield, who was once described by Forbes magazine as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”, doesn’t plan to follow in Garneau’s footsteps. “I’ve already served 35 years as a public servant and risked my life,” he explained. “I think I could contribute as a private citizen now.”

The dozen other Canadians sandwiched between Garneau and Hadfield in our astronaut roster include Ken Money, a physiologist and jet pilot selected in 1983 but who never went into space. That first cohort also included physicians Bob Thirsk and Roberta Bondar (who, in 1992, became the first Canadian woman in space); laser physicist Steve MacLean (who later served as CSA President); and aerodynamicist Bjarni Tryggvason – all of whom flew at least one Shuttle mission.

In addition to Hadfield, Canada’s second cohort included computer engineer Julie Payette and physician Dave Williams, each of whom flew two missions. 

Julie Payette and her commander Mark Polansky, free flying in the Japanese Kibo laboratory. Ms Payette has been selected as Canada’s newest Governor General. (NASA Photo 2009​)

A fourth, geophysicist Robert Stewart, withdrew just two weeks after being selected because of uncertainty about future Shuttle flights and an unwillingness to possibly wait years for an ISS slot in competition with candidates from US, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency, the other ISS funding partners.

Stewart was replaced by Royal Canadian Air Force engineer Mike McKay, who eventually quit the active roster in 1995 for medical reasons. He remained part of the Shuttle support team until 1997, working mainly on robotics and the ISS vision system before moving to the private sector.

Canada’s evolving preference for astronauts with military or medical backgrounds was underscored, during the third recruitment drive, by the selection in 2009 of CF-18 pilot Jeremy Hansen and physician David Saint-Jacques from 5,351 applicants. 

Neither have been to space yet, however, the CSA announced that Saint-Jacques will be launched aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS in November 2018 for a six-month mission. 

August 2017 – Expedition 58 crew member David Saint-Jacques during ISS EVA P/P 1 training. (NASA photo Josh Valcarcel)

Whether Canada’s newest astronauts, Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey, introduced by the CSA in July, will be part of that outreach obviously remains to be seen but again the edge afforded by a military career came into play. Their mission prospects will mature as they go through the standard two-year NASA training program in Houston.

Kutryk, another CF-18 pilot, has dreamed of being an astronaut since he was five or six years old but said in a published interview that “growing up, I think I was quiet about the goal because it's such a tremendous thing to try to accomplish.” That said, “it became more relevant as I went through my professional training.”

Asked about his prospects “to be part of a new phase in human space exploration that goes beyond the space station”, the former test pilot said that he “would love to be involved with the initial sorties of a new vehicle and/or a new destination” and that “the technical work that's going to be involved in that kind of exploration in the next few years is something that's very exciting.”

He acknowledges the risks associated with space flight but believes it’s not only “a suitable risk for the right people to be taking” but also “an essential risk for us to take collectively” because “there’s nothing that defines us better as humans than the passion to explore.”

Sidey, who has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and who lectures at Cambridge University. Her academic work and community outreach efforts earned her the 2016 Young Woman Engineer of the Year award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Young Engineer of the Year award from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Counting Bondar and Payette among her personal heroes, Sidey too was inspired by the early astronauts as a child. “But, to be honest, as my interests developed, I knew I wanted to be a scientist and an engineer and I stuck with that for a long time. It wasn’t until the call opened again and then a friend of mine that I know through rugby said, ‘you should really look at this. You might fit well with what they’re looking for’.”

An “experimentalist at heart,” Sidey is interested in “anything else we may be curious about in space,” and says “it would be a pleasure to do any of that work.” 

Like the dozen other Canadian astronauts, she and Kutryk clearly do have that “right stuff” and a desire, as Star Trek puts it, “to go where no one has gone before.

Ken Pole is a FrontLine 
Contributing Editor.