Technology & Science

Meet some of Canada's keenest astronaut candidates

Doctors, teacher, Mars One candidate among those vying to go to space

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

The Canadian Space Agency is accepting applications for two astronaut positions, but the deadline is tonight. (NASA)

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Canadians have a shot at being hired as an astronaut for the first time since 2009.

The Canadian Space Agency is accepting applications for two astronaut positions until Aug. 15. The recruitment campaign was announced on June 17. As of July 19, 3,372 Canadians had applied.

Over the course of a year, they'll be whittled down to a short list of 200, then 40 finalists, following a series of written, physical and mental tests, along with interviews and security clearances. Ultimately, two astronauts will be chosen.

CBC News interviewed seven Canadians who are applying in order to give you a sense of who's applying and what kind of competition astronaut candidates are up against.


Shawna Pandya

Shawna Pandya

Age: 32

Hometown: Brandon, Man.

Current location: Edmonton

Occupation: Medical resident, general practice

Education/Experience: B.Sc. in neuroscience at University of Alberta, master's in space sciences at International Space University, MD at University of Alberta;  internships at European Astronaut Centre and Johnson Space Centre in aerospace medicine; citizen science astronaut training with Project PoSSUM (polar suborbital science in the upper mesosphere), testing commercial space suit in zero gravity; citizen science astronaut training with the SeaSpace Society`s PHEnOM Project; gravity studies at the NASTAR Centre competitive taekwondo athlete; training in French, Spanish, Russian; scuba diving certifications; working on private pilot's licence; also scheduled to take part in  SeaSpace Society`s Project Poseidon, a 100-day underwater mission at the Aquarius Space Research Facility in Florida;

Why she wants to be an astronaut:

"When I was 10, I became obsessed with astronomy," Pandya said. "All my junior high science projects or reports, they were all space related … I think the idea of doing something that's so adventurous and really pushes the bounds of exploration, and the fact that you'd get to space really, really resonated with me."

She decided to study neuroscience because the first Canadian woman in space, Roberta Bondar, was a neuro-opthalmologist.

She applied to the CSA during the last astronaut recruitment campaign, when she was medical student, and thinks that was "invaluable" for knowing what the agency is looking for in an astronaut. Since then, "everything I've done in one respect or another, I feel has helped prepare me to becoming a competitive candidate." But she says she's not doing them just to prepare for the astronaut recruitment campaign. "I just love doing these things — I love exploration, I love adventure."

She said the announcement of the latest astronaut recruitment campaign came sooner than expected and was "just such a happy surprise."


Jacob Brown

Jake Brown composite

Age: 26

Hometown: Carleton Place, Ont.

Current location: Ottawa.

Occupation: Pilot-in-training, Royal Canadian Air Force; Master's student in space systems at Florida Institute of Technology

Education/Experience: B.Sc. in computer science at Carleton University; military pilot training in aerobatics, language training in German, Russian and Cyrillic.

Why he wants to be an astronaut:

"I've always wanted to fly. Originally, my goal as child was to be pilot. As I got older and learned more about space, I thought, 'You know what? Astronaut would be something that would be even more incredible,'" he recalled. "I've been gearing my education as well as how I go about life in that direction."

Brown says he most wants to have the opportunity to be part of the advancement of space technology and science. But he also thinks a chance to pilot a spacecraft and snap a picture of Earth from the International Space Station would be "incredible."


Maria Nickel

Maria Nickel

Age: 46

Hometown: Edmonton

Current location: Winnipeg

Occupation: Grade 7 and 8 science teacher, Interlake School Division

Education/Experience: B.Phys. Ed. at University of Manitoba, B.Ed. at Brandon University; Training at Honeywell Space Academy, an astronaut training program for teachers; winner of 2013 Canadian Space Agency's Challenge Coin for Excellence in Space for getting the first elementary school experiment in Canada sent to the International Space Station; running a space robotics and engineering club at Interlake School Division.

Why she wants to be an astronaut:

"My dad took me to see Star Wars when I was like 7. That's pretty much when it started," Nickel recalls.

After a decade of teaching, she was chosen to attend Honeywell Educators at Space Academy U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) in Honeywell, Ala., and  Advanced Space Academy at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. These programs, for teachers from around the world, are designed to inspire science and math activities they can take back to their classrooms.

Nickel took part in space simulations and astronaut training activities such as piloting a simulated space shuttle. "I went, 'Hey, this could be a really cool career,'" Nickel said.

She's been organizing astronaut training and space robotics activities for her students ever since. The students heard about the astronaut recruitment campaign in June.

"And they said, 'Ms. Nickel, you should apply.' And I thought, 'Why not? Let's try to inspire the kids to dare to dream mighty things, and you never know.'"

She's most interested in conducting science in space to develop treatments to help humans on Earth with conditions such as osteoporosis. She also wants a chance to see "what our big, blue planet looks like from way up there" and take a picture that she can show her students.

But she added that if she even made it past the initial screening to the testing part of the astronaut recruitment process, "I'd be thrilled."


Tahir Merali

Tahir Merali

Age: 30

Hometown: Edmonton

Current location: Calgary

Occupation: Owner of OrbitOne space consulting company

Education/Experience: Canadian air cadet and United Space School at Johnson Space Center during high school; B.Eng. in mechanical engineering at University of Toronto, master's in space management at International Space University; astronaut trainer with Airbus and European Space Agency; collaborated with Canadian astronauts to fly two life science experiments on the International Space Station; scuba certification

Why he wants to be an astronaut:

When he was five, Merali visited the Kennedy Space Center with his family. Then at seven, his father took him to meet Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar. "It was the ember that lit my fire," he recalled.

Since then, he's been looking for work and opportunities that allow him to be part of the space industry and could potentially help him become an astronaut.

"Being an astronaut, you're on the forefront of exploration and knowledge gathering and experience. It's one thing to be able to do that, but then also be an ambassador and share that with the world as well. And I think those two combined really excite me," said Merali, who is very active on social media.

He hopes humans may soon go back to the moon, and the astronauts recruited in this round may get a chance. "I think Canada having a more involved role with going back to the moon is quite exciting."

Andreea Radulescu

Andreea Radulescu

Age: 35

Hometown: Timisoara, Romania

Current location: Toronto

Occupation: Data/business analyst

Education/Experience: B.Sc. in mathematics at Trent University, M.Sc. in space science at International Space University; Mars One finalist; citizen scientist astronaut candidate with SeaSpace Society; citizen scientist with Project PoSSUM; suborbital space sciences certificate from NASTAR Center; working on private pilot's licence.

Why she wants to be an astronaut:

"Honestly, what fascinates me is the unknown," Radulescu said. "I think space is one of those things that is just the most unknown out there [with] so many things that we don't know yet and so much research that we can do."

This isn't Radulescu's first shot at being an astronaut. She's also one of six Canadians among the 100 global finalists for Mars One, a private venture that aims to send people on a one-way trip to Mars in 2026.

If she has to choose between being an astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency or Mars One, she says she would likely pick Mars One: "In terms of research, I think it's a bigger risk, but the return is a lot higher. If we manage to actually live on other planets, I think that's a bigger achievement."


Kris Lehnhardt

Kris Lehnhardt

Age: 39

Hometown: Toronto

Current location: Washington, D.C.

Occupation: Assistant professor, attending physician, George Washington University in emergency and aerospace medicine, aviation medical examiner for the FAA. In August he is in Israel serving as the chair of the human performance in space department at the International Space University space studies program

Education/Experience:  B.Sc. in biomedical sciences at University of Guelph, MD at Western University, residency in emergency medicine; private pilot's licence

Why he wants to be an astronaut:

"I remember watching Star Trek reruns with my mother when I was young and being fascinated by space flight," he said.

After reading the profiles of Canadian astronauts some years later, he decided to follow in the footsteps of Dave Williams, a former physician who flew aboard the space shuttles to the International Space Station between 1992 and 2008. After his medical training, Lehnhardt chose to move to the U.S. in order to pursue aerospace medicine, as there weren't many such opportunities in Canada.

Lehnhardt applied to be an astronaut in 2008 and made it into the top 200. Since then, he said, he's been waiting patiently "and doing things in the meantime which would make me a better candidate."

For him, he said, "everything about space flight has always been very visceral." Watching the last space shuttle launch brought him to tears, he said. "That feeling I get inside was pure joy."


Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers in zero gravity (Courtesy Damian Rogers)

Age: 35

Hometown: Hamilton, Ont.

Current location:  Oakville, Ont.

Occupation:  Marine engineer

Education/Experience: B.Eng. in aerospace engineering at Ryerson University; M.A. Sc. in space sciences at International Space University, PhD in mechanical engineering at Ryerson University; worked on projects for the Canadian Space Agency and MDA, helped develop and test shower for use in zero gravity, private pilot's licence, scuba diving certificate.

Why he wants to be an astronaut:

"It goes back to a childhood dream, really," said Rogers, who said he grew up in an era of Star Trek, Star Wars and NASA shuttle flights. "I always wanted to go out and see new planets. … My mom always said, 'Shoot for the stars' when I was growing up, and I guess I took that a little bit literally."

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