Canada's just looking for a few good astronauts.

For just the third time since the creation of the Canadian Astronaut Corps in 1983, Canada will add at least two new space explorers to an exclusive group of astronauts. The recruitment campaign begins in earnest this May, with the two new astronauts expected to be named in May 2009.

"It is time for us to recruit," Industry Minister Jim Prentice said Monday at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal.

"We do need younger astronauts coming aboard, but it also provides us with a pool of talented people from which to draw possibly in the future."

Prentice also announced the creation of an advisory committee that will include retired astronaut Dave Williams to assist him on matters related to the space agency.

Canada has had two other recruitment campaigns, the last coming in 1992. For each campaign, more than 5,000 candidates applied before the competition was whittled down to about 20, said Steve MacLean, Canada's chief astronaut.

"We're looking for a versatile individual who has high technical competence and has the ability to work in a team," MacLean said.

The selection criteria have been different each time. During the first process in 1983, payload specialists with a PhD were added to perform science-related duties on board the shuttle. In 1992, the requirements for a mission specialist called for a minimum of a bachelor's degree plus three years' experience.

This time, MacLean says the selection team will look for a hybrid of both — a researcher who can handle the physical and life sciences aspect, operate manipulators such as Canadarm 2 and have the physical ability to withstand gruelling spacewalks.

"It will be tough to meet the grade and be able to show that you can do all of that," MacLean said.

Once the candidates are selected next May, basic training will begin at NASA in August 2009, followed by training for missions of about six months.

Long road ahead

With only four active astronauts, including three in training, the time had come to recruit, MacLean said.

A minimum of six are needed to fulfil the tasks required, he added.

Astronaut Bob Thirsk, scheduled to go up for a long-term stay on the International Space Station, suggested newcomers be ready for a long road ahead before submitting an application.

"I would advise them to think about patience," Thirsk said. "I've been a Canadian astronaut for 20 years, I've had one space flight."

Thirsk also warned that the reward of space travel comes at a cost.

"There is a sacrifice to make, both family-wise and career-wise," he said.

The 54-year-old Thirsk hopes to set a record for the length of time a Canadian has remained on the space station. He will begin his four-to-six-month voyage when he blasts off aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule on May 25, 2009, not long after the new recruits are in place.

Still, Thirsk is envious of the new batch of Canadian astronauts coming in.

"Those astronauts will be the first Canadians on the moon and the recruitment campaign beyond that will be the first Canadians on Mars," Thirsk said.

"This is not science fiction, it's happening now."