All posts by Elizabeth Howell

Astronauts give tips to join Canada’s space-flying corps

For wanna-be astronauts in Canada, Monday (Aug. 15) will likely be your last chance to apply for many years. Thousands of candidates will be in the race, but luckily for us, two astronauts recently gave a talk in Ottawa giving tips for how to make it to the top.

At the Canada Aviation and Space Museum a few weeks ago were two-time spaceflight veteran Robert Thirsk — the first long-term Canadian astronaut on the International Space Station — and Jeremy Hansen, who was selected in 2009 and is still awaiting a flight.

Excitement among the children and families at the event was palpable given that a Canadian will soon be flying into space again; David Saint-Jacques made an appearance at the same museum in May when that 2018 flight date was announced. When the astronauts asked the audience who is applying to be an astronaut, at least three or four adults raised their hands.

“Attitude is so important in the selection of astronauts,” Thirsk said at the event. “They want people who are visionary, who are dreamers, who are willing to take calculated risks, who pay attention to detail. Insane attention to detail. Who can manage themselves and not let other people worry about taking care of them.”

Canadian astronauts Bob Thirsk (right) and Julie Payette unite on the International Space Station in 2009, the first Canadians to meet up in space. Credit: NASA
Canadian astronauts Bob Thirsk (right) and Julie Payette unite on the International Space Station in 2009, the first Canadians to meet up in space. Credit: NASA

The two astronauts joked about their respective recruitment campaigns in 1983 and 2008. In both cases, the process took many months, including a battery of medical and psychological tests. Thirsk (from 1983) said there also were “evaluations in social settings”, but the astronauts weren’t aware that the cocktail parties were part of the evaluation process. Hansen (from 2008) joked: “I don’t think we were as naive … we thought we had cameras in our hotel bathrooms.”

In Hansen’s case, by the time the field narrowed to 40 candidates, there were a series of highly publicized and rigorous physical tests, particularly in water. They had to fight fires and plug holes in a simulated sinking ship, for example, and do lots of swimming. Both astronauts said they were tested to their limits, and that was important.

“It’s one thing to show up in an interview, comfortable, rested, eaten, hydrated. It’s another thing to perform at the end of a day like that,” Hansen said of his day on the ship. “You’re not having fun. It’s an important test to look at the skillsets of what we can expect from an individual on a space station.”

On the medical side, some of the standards have relaxed. It used to be, Thirsk explained, that less than 20/20 vision was a disqualifier. Now it’s possible to fly if you use eyeglasses to correct your sight. But there are some things that can’t be overlooked. He mentioned conditions such as kidney stones, epilepsy, diabetes, missing digits and psychoses.

"Class photo" of the astronauts selected by all agencies in 2009. The Canadians are in the second row from the bottom. David Saint-Jacques is at far left, and Hansen is second-last in the same row (on the right-hand side.) Credit: NASA
“Class photo” of the astronauts selected by all agencies in 2009. The Canadians are in the second row from the bottom. David Saint-Jacques is at far left, and Hansen is second-last in the same row (on the right-hand side.) Credit: NASA

Selected candidates will have to get used to a lot of “Type 2” fun, Thirsk said, explaining this means enjoying things such as being isolated in Utah and walking long distances with your crewmates every day. (“Type 1” is the more in-the-moment stuff, he added, like being on a roller coaster. Presumably weightless training on a jet is similar.)

And there will be a lot of change for the new astronauts. Both SpaceX and Boeing are planning to launch astronauts out of North America around the end of 2017, Hansen said. (Astronauts have been flying on Soyuzes out of Kazakhstan since the space shuttle retired in 2011.) SpaceX has been landing the first stages of their rocket, and there are hopes that the company can reduce the cost of launching to space by a hundred-fold.

To take part in the recruitment campaign, head over to this link and get your application finished over the weekend: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronauts/

What use is a family doctor in space?

Picture a Venn diagram with “Medical student/resident at McGill University” and “Canadian astronaut.” Incredibly, the circles intersect for three cases. When David Saint-Jacques makes it to space, he will follow a tradition set by Bob Thirsk and Dave Williams.

Montreal, Que.-based McGill has the oldest and one of the most famous medical schools in the country. The school was established in 1829 and has pushed medical as well as space frontiers; for example, the school’s website notes one faculty member used X-rays only four months after they were discovered in 1895.

Space wasn’t an option way back then, but Saint-Jacques certainly knew of his astronaut predecessors when doing his residency at the McGill-affiliated family medicine centre at St-Mary’s Hospital between 2005 and 2007. Maureen Doyle, then the postgraduate program co-ordinator, remembers David as a “great guy” who was liked by patients and staff alike.

“He was easy to work with and easy to teach, and obviously really enjoyed being a family doctor,” said Doyle in an interview for this site.

When David was working at Saint Mary’s, most residents were trained in family medicine (more specialties have been added today). This required the residents to be extremely proficient in conditions for all ages and all stages of life, ranging from pre-conception counselling to elder care, Doyle said.

While Doyle is not an expert in space medicine, she said one way that family medicine might prepare a doctor is the notion of always being prepared. Family doctors need to treat a range of conditions, and be able to shift quickly as different patients come in. This would also be useful for space exploration.

These types of physicians also need to exercise judgment. While there are guidelines and procedures to follow, the doctors must be adaptable if those guidelines and protocols don’t quite fit the medical condition. And like astronauts, the doctors must be able to work on their own and also flow effortlessly into teams as required.

Notably, David also focused on doing medical work in isolated situations, and after his time in McGill practiced medicine at Inuulitsivik Health Centre in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, on Hudson Bay.  Last week after his flight date was announced, David told reporters that he wanted to continue this sort of isolated medicine study while he is in space.

But Doyle didn’t know if David was thinking of that when he did his studies. She did say, however, that family doctors from McGill have gone on to many diverse careers, such as joining Doctors Without Borders or performing front-line research.

Top image: David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen during trauma training at McGill University in 2014. Credit: Canadian Space Agency