While retired astronaut Chris Hadfield pens a book about his experiences, two of his younger colleagues are busily preparing for their turns in space.
And their missions could take them even farther than their predecessors.
“We’re thinking of deep space exploration,” said rookie astronaut David Saint-Jacques. “Not only do we want to leave Earth’s orbit, but we want to go beyond the moon. We want to go to an asteroid potentially as a first step and eventually
— what’s on everybody’s mind — is going to Mars.”
Saint-Jacques, a former doctor from Quebec, is one of two Canadian Space Agency astronauts plucked from a pool of more than 5,300 applicants during a national recruitment campaign that launched five years ago. Though he and fellow astronaut Jeremy Hansen — the only active astronauts with the agency since Hadfield’s retirement — have both completed basic training, neither has made it beyond Earth’s orbit yet.
And they may have a bit of a wait. The Canadian Space Agency has already seen its budget trimmed and will experience more financial belt tightening over the next two years. The organization is also waiting to hear whether the government will overhaul its program based on recommendations put forward by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson who conducted an arms-length review of the country’s aerospace industry late last year.
It means there are no firm plans in place for when the next Canadian will reach gravity-defying heights and the Canadian Space Agency has said it won’t send an astronaut to the International Space Station until at least 2016.
But despite the uncertainty, Canada’s astronauts say they’re confident they’ll make it to space.
“I don’t think it will be soon, but I think it will happen,” Saint-Jacques said. “We’re a bit like athletes who would like to go to the Olympics — we don’t decide if we go, all we can do is train and like our sport.”
Even though they’re playing a waiting game, Hansen said now is an exciting time to be part of the space agency.
“I see a lot of important changes happening that really point towards a bright future for space exploration,” said the Ontario-native and former fighter pilot. ”I envision Canada recruiting more astronauts and more Canadians having the opportunity to fly in space in the not-so-distant future.”
He points to the fact that private companies across the United States are gearing up to send men beyond Earth’s orbit and talks excitedly about NASA’s new Orion space capsule — designed to take men to the moon, asteroids and Mars — which will start unmanned test flights next year.
Hansen is already preparing himself to explore realms of space where no humans have trod before. He just returned from a two-week trip to Canada’s high north where he worked alongside researchers at Western University’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration to study one of the world’s oldest craters on Devon Island in Nunavut to hone his field geology skills.
While there, Hansen learned how to detect subtle differences between rock types and practiced selecting the best samples for analysis. These are skills he said could play a big role if he ever finds himself on an asteroid or Mars where he would need to understand the history of the unexplored bodies and whether they contain resources that could be useful to people back on Earth.
The trip also provided him with valuable survival training — something he said is crucial for any type of space exploration.
“I’m in isolation, I’m on an island in the high Arctic, there’s really no guarantee of rescue,” he recalled. “If something goes wrong it could be days before anyone can get to me.”
The space agency is set to participate in the International Space Station program until 2020, according to the 2012 budget. Both young astronauts say they hope government support to space exploration is extended beyond that deadline, especially after Hadfield’s high-profile trip captivated the nation.
I see a lot of important changes happening that really point towards a bright future for space exploration
Canada’s astronauts at a glance
Home town: London, Ont.
Education: Bachelor of Science (Royal Military College, Kingston), Master of Science in Physics (Royal Military College, Kingston)
Previous employment: CF-18 fighter pilot
Joined the Canadian Space Agency: May 2009
Home town: Saint-Lambert, Que.
Education: Bachelor of Engineering (École polytechnique de Montréal), Ph.D. in Astrophysics (Cambridge University, UK), Doctor of Medicine (Université Laval, Quebec City)
Previous employment: Medical doctor
Joined the Canadian Space Agency: May 2009
Source: National Post