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Canada: World leaders in rocket science

By Samantha Wright Allen      

As the Canadian Space Agency prepares to select the finalists from its latest astronaut recruitment campaign, Canada’s future in the space industry looks stronger than ever.

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In the online video, rollicking waves bounce off the pool’s tall walls, forming even higher crests in the simulation test. A person bobs and struggles toward a life raft as intense music surges.

Ottawa’s Jason Leuschen remembers watching the clip of an astronaut candidate’s struggle during the Canadian Space Agency’s 2009 call for its third-ever corps, and as a bad swimmer himself, thinking he’d need to ready himself for the test.

But he still wasn’t prepared for the eight-metre plunge into the survival test when his turn came in the latest round in 2017.

Jason Leuschen taking part in a challenging swimming test as part of the astronaut recruitment campaign. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency.

“When you’re underwater trying to hold your breath and still be cognitively functional, it’s a real conflict ‘cause your brain is trying to panic and get you to the surface to get [air] but the executive part is saying ‘No, you’ve got to stay down here and work on something and keep your wits about you,’” says Leuschen, whose background as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force helped prepare him for some of the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) rigorous assessments, covering hand-eye coordination, problem solving, team tasks and rescues in fiery buildings.

“I thought I was heavily tested until the space agency got a hold of me,” Leuschen laughs as he speaks with P&I by phone from Portage la Prairie, Man., home to a Canadian Forces training base.

“They were [all] very complicated tasks, so you didn’t really know what they were assessing you on.”

The emergency training is just one of the many ways the selection committee gauges resilience, assessing who can follow in the space boots of Canadians who have historically punched above their weight to take leadership roles in orbit and on the ground among much-larger American and Russian crews. Those inside the agency say Canada is in good position to continue that legacy.

“We are world leaders right across the board,” says Chris Hadfield, the celebrity astronaut who in 2013 captivated the world as he documented celestial realities as commander of the International Space Station (ISS), earning millions of eyes for his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

“We continue to build the best of space,” continues Hadfield in a phone interview, “our hardware is orbiting other planets right now… Our people have been leaders in space exploration since the beginning.”

Because of Canada’s small corps of 12 astronauts in its history—an amount in a three-decade span that NASA collects every two years—Hadfield says Canada is looking for the “complete skillset,”— someone who can represent the country in whatever role is needed in a rapidly changing industry.

“Fortunately, we have an embarrassment of riches in Canada,” says Hadfield.

The 39-year-old Leuschen was among the 3,772 people who responded to Canada’s fourth-ever call for astronauts in summer 2016 and has survived to the penultimate stage that’s left 17 standing. After four rounds of multi-day tests, soon there will only be two left.

While Canada has always looked for well-rounded candidates to fill its small roster, the 21st century brought a shift, with more attention on high-pressure testing, pushing hopefuls past the point of mental and physical exhaustion—with the demands of space walking in mind and longer half-year missions. In a 2009 six-month stint, Robert Thirsk became the first Canadian to fly a long duration expedition, then Hadfield after him.

“As a result we’ve really refined our selection process,” says Hadfield, who just finished hosting a BBC series on astronaut selection, set to broadcast in the fall, which he hopes will demystify some of the assumptions about the job.

It used to be six-member crews sent to space, but that number has halved, creating the need for a slightly different set of skills. Test pilots—Hadfield’s pedigree—are still needed for complex vehicle control, but the ability to learn quickly is the prized quality.

“That’s a different type of personality [needed now] perhaps,” he says. “You need someone who is very good on interpersonal skills, who has a very, very broad skill base because you’re not just operating a machine, you’re running 200 scientific experiences on behalf of researchers all around the world and you’re repairing an immensely complex vehicle that weighs a million pounds and has been at sea since 1998.”

The Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency.

As part of the CSA’s selection committee, Jeremy Hansen says the goal is to see what happens when “it’s not fun anymore” and contestants are working hard, uncomfortable and at the end of their rope—mentally exhausted, physically exhausted.

“Are you still a good team player?” asks Hansen, who will be training both CSA and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) newcomers in Houston, Texas.

“People can bring an outside veneer to an interview, to a process, where they have reserve, they have energy. But when you wear them down over a couple days and they have to give their all and they’re not comfortable, what are they really like?”

Hansen was picked with David Saint-Jacques in 2009 out of a record 5,351 applicants. They became Canada’s only working astronauts in 2013 after Julie Payette and Hadfield retired. But this summer that number will double.

“We’re not recruiting these astronauts because we have an exact mission for them to fly in space … but you have to have a vision of the future,” says Hansen by phone in Houston, Texas, noting it’ll have taken two years to ready for the 2017 class, pushing them through four selection rounds, reams of testing—some of the details secret—and will take another couple years to complete basic training.

While the name of Canada’s top astronauts are synonymous with the country’s contributions to space exploration, it’s some of the early technological advancements that put Canada on the cosmic map.

Before there was a Marc Garneau (Canada’s first man to leave Earth for orbit), a Roberta Bondar (Canada’s first woman in space) or a Chris Hadfield (Canada’s first mission specialist and spaceship commander)—before there was even an astronaut program—Canada was at the forefront of technological innovation.

Canada became the third country in space with the launch of the satellite Alouette 1 in 1962, behind the Soviet Union and United States.

With robotics technology that literally assembled the International Space Station, nations turn to Canada for its expertise.

It means that all astronauts—either international or domestic—are trained how to use the Canadian inventions at the country’s headquarters skirting Montreal, where flight controllers guide about half of the iconic Canadarm2’s operations from the ground.

‘Epitome of innovation’

An image of the International Space Station is on one wall at the CSA’s nerve centre in suburban Montreal, the scale of it impossible to comprehend: a football field- sized mass of white metal, brighter in this rendition than the many sparkling stars.

Canadian flight controllers operate the Canadian robotic systems on the International Space Station from Mission Control at the CSA’s headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency

At this scale, two fingers could cover Canada’s remarkable robotics that helped construct the beacon of international cooperation: the 17-metre robotic arm and Dextre, a smaller “robotic handyman” that can attach to the end of Canadarm2, the mobile base or any other number of stations.

A few steps away a dozen headshots smile from the wall: Canada’s small fleet of astronauts who have made their mark on earth and in space since the first selection in 1983. That year, in the final round, two of 20 candidates were women, and this year women make up five of the 17.

According to 2014 data, about 90 per cent of the CSA’s 670 employees work from its Saint Hubert, Que.-based John H. Chapman Space Centre, a cohort that Hadfield says fills just one of NASA’s many buildings in Houston.

In a nearby room a life-sized engineering model shows how Canadarm2 was folded for flight before Hadfield’s second mission in 2001. During the 11-day endeavour, Hadfield used the first Canadarm—small enough to be taken back to Earth and refurbished—to install the new structure and thus became the first Canadian to spacewalk, spending 14 hours, 54 minutes outside on two walks, travelling 10 times around the world.

“Every module was built in a separate country, hurtled to space and then carefully assembled by Canadarm over a decade,” explains Saint-Jacques by phone from his office at NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas. He is back briefly from Star City, Russia, where he is training to be the next Canadian astronaut to leave Earth.

Nearly 20 years later, Canadarm2 is being used in ways engineers never would have dreamed. It catches all the cargo spacecraft bringing supplies and experiments.

From the CSA’s darkened control room, John Bellingham watches four screens showing various angles on the ISS: crew members cleaning space suits, the tip of Canadarm2, Earth. Bellingham drives both Canadarm2 and Dextre, part of the effort that increasingly reduces how much crews use robotics.

“The real goal of the station is science. We can’t avoid some of the maintenance tasks that are just required for life support,” says the flight controller and 15-year CSA veteran, adding Dextre recently fixed an important exterior power switch, avoiding an exhausting and dangerous space walk.

“[It’s] time consuming if you track the hours it takes to get the suits ready, rehearse the tasks to execute, to recover afterwards and one hour of their time is extremely [valuable]—it’s years of my salary,” says Bellingham, explaining that Canadarm2 moves weekly and when the next SpaceX Dragon comes—the free-flying private spacecraft—with cargo and experiments, they’ll be working 16-hour days for two weeks non-stop.

“It really adds up. I’m not sure the astronauts would have lot of time for science if we hadn’t gradually increased the scope of what the ground does.”

That’s why it’s easy to trace how “every important operation on board” now goes through Canadian robotics, says Saint- Jacques.

“Canada is a major player in the modern way to think of space. It’s part of our infrastructure.”

The government has bought into that vision, says CSA’s president, who pointed to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ assertion that the country’s space program represents the “epitome of innovation.”

“Wow. [That sentence] positions space to the forefront of innovation,” says Sylvain Laporte, who speaks of other government signals from March’s budget release. “We have a really great opportunity to make sure that space is integral to Canada’s innovative programs and moving forward to breaking new grounds, disruptive technology surrounding innovation.”

In April, the month after the federal government promised $80.9-million over five years to the space program, Bains’ department articulated its plan to support two projects: a radar instrument that could be used to study Mars’ surface and another using quantum technology.

Canada is in the midst of a developing a new space strategy, with Bains renewing the space advisory board in April with a summer deadline for the vision. Pointing to $5.38-billion in revenue in 2014, the government says the space sector plays an important role in the economy, including the investment of $146-million into research that same year.

Laporte declined to comment on where he sees Canada’s future role until the strategy is announced, but says the candidates are a key part of the country’s space future. When they will go, what they will be researching, and what Canada’s role will be are all top of mind.

“Those are all questions [we] eventually need to answer but the first step at technical level is let’s get these expert rocket scientists to figure out what this could look like before we can make any kind of serious considerations moving forward,” Laporte says.

Those questions don’t need to be answered now, but Canada does need to be ready when the time comes, says Hansen, who is expected to complete his first mission by 2024.

“Canada could really continue to be a significant player in space,” says Hansen, pointing to recent robotic operations that saved the space program “significant” resources. “I think that is our legacy and it shows we have our niche areas and we have opportunities… Now, you don’t get anything for free. You have to earn it, you have to execute.”

After spending some time in the space industry, Hansen says it becomes clear it’s “changing drastically” and it “won’t wait” anymore.

“If you’re not competitive you just won’t be part of it. And we’re positioned to be competitive but I do feel there’s a sense of timeliness that’s really important for us to think strategically.”

A major player

The day Saint-Jacques’ name was called as co-pilot of the Soyuz spacecraft, his job changed to focus entirely on preparation for the fall 2018 flight. So far, his career has been spent supporting other people’s missions, but now he’ll need to spend a year learning how to fly the Russian carrier, currently the only active rocket. On top of that, he faces advanced training spacewalk techniques and preparation for robotics operations and the scientific experiments he will be conducting during the six-month mission.

As a former physician in Nunavik, Que. and biomedical engineer, Saint-Jacques says he’s looking forward to the health science focus of their research.

“It’s easy for me to foresee all the impacts on the ground of all that research,” he explains, referring to remote-care research, vaccines and disease.

“There’s usually a very direct relationship between problems that afflict astronauts in orbit and some real disease that afflicts everybody on the ground.”

Bones, for example, get weak when not used in orbit—a similar progression experienced with osteoporosis in old age. It becomes easier to study on otherwise healthy astronauts, looking at the reality in isolation.

“Space is actually a very good laboratory to study disease,” Saint-Jacques says rather matter-of-factly of the risks and about being used as a guinea pig.

The CSA leads a Mars sample return simulation in the Utah desert in collaboration with academia, industry, and international space agencies. Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency

“There’s huge efforts being put in to minimize those impacts, so I’m not blissfully ignorant,” he says. “It makes adventure even more worthwhile when you know it has such direct impacts to general medicine.”

With satellites ubiquitous in daily life, Saint-Jacques says many don’t realize Canada’s early and continued contributions make it “a major player” in the modern space world.

While Canada has long since left telecommunications to industry, it’s still pushing ground in that regard with RADARSAT, an Earth observation satellite that can capture images through cloud
and smoke. Next year, Canada will launch its “constellation,” a collection of three satellites angled so that they can cover 90 per cent of the world’s surface every day. It will improve the image resolution, frequency and quality of Earth observation.

In Hadfield’s autobiography An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, he recalls dreaming of becoming an astronaut as a boy, but having no national program to aspire to. Canada’s 17 hopefuls tell similar childhood stories of looking skyward in the black of night and dreaming of, one day, gazing back down upon Earth from among the stars.

Even though Saint-Jacques is less than two years from that exceptional experience, shared by fewer than 600 people, he’s got his mind on the grind of getting ready.

“If you’d caught someone halfway up Mount Everest climbing to the summit, he probably wouldn’t be smiling at that moment,” he jokes. “Maybe cursing a little bit but of course privileged and happy to be there and looking forward to the accomplishment.”

Like Hadfield, who calls the space station “the ultimate international stage,” Saint-Jacques is proud of the “beautiful example” of country collaboration.

“It’s one of the few arenas where humans do really well at working together towards a common goal, setting differences aside, focusing on what we all share,”
says Saint-Jacques. “This is one of the few genuinely supranational endeavors so it kind of bodes well for the future of mankind.”

For Hadfield, the question for Canada as a key player is: what next?

“What decisions should we be making now? And what should our priorities be? And what are the challenges that are facing us now as opposed to facing Canada 50 years ago or 150 years ago?”

When Hadfield looks back at Canada’s contributions, it’s easy to try and draw progress as a straight line.

“But of course it isn’t. It’s always fits and starts… and every successive government has to rethink what the previous governments have committed to,” says Hadfield, who hopes to see a sustained commitment to research—and Canadians—in space. “It’s normal human behaviour and politics and funding, but we’ve done a really commendable job since 1962 of building on expertise with a very small group of people.”

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