Yellowknife woman on the shortlist to become Canada's next astronaut

Doctor, pilot, teacher, military officer — Yellowknife woman Nathalie Sleno is a jack of all trades.

'It doesn't seem that real, until I realize how close I am,' says Nathalie Sleno

Nathalie Sleno is in the top 72 to become one of Canada's next two astronauts. Twelve astronauts have been hired since the inception of the Canadian Space Agency in 1983. (Submitted by Nathalie Sleno)

Doctor, pilot, teacher, military officer — Yellowknife woman Nathalie Sleno is a jack of all trades.

So when the opportunity came up last year to apply to be one of Canada's next two astronauts, Sleno says she was "thrilled."

"I never thought it would be in my time," she said. "I just couldn't not apply."

For Sleno, her path to top 72 out of nearly 4,000 candidates began when she was a young girl.

"I remember as a little girl looking up at the sky, I'd lay down on the grass. My father was a pilot and I used to imagine myself up there."
Sleno by a NASA rescue vehicle. (Submitted by Nathalie Sleno)

"I couldn't wait to get up there, and I started flying as soon as I could," she said. Sleno later got her private pilot's licence and worked as a pilot with the Canadian Forces. 

Sleno has a bachelor of science from the University of Alberta where she also completed her residency for family medicine, and a doctorate in medicine from University of Manitoba. She has worked as a researcher of military equipment and ergonomics and later became an instructor, teaching aerospace physiology to pilots and aircrew. Today, she works as a medical officer with the Armed Forces' ambulance detachment in Yellowknife.  

"I have seven children... they're all behind me on this one." - Nathalie Sleno

If successful, she would join the two active Canadian astronauts at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, this summer.

"These guys are top of their fields, top of their games. There's nothing that's impossible in their minds," said Sleno.

"I know it sounds cliche but [their work] transcends borders. It would be an exciting place to work."

Nathalie Sleno is the only candidate shortlisted who lives in the North, making up 1 per cent of all astronaut candidates. (Canadian Space Agency)

The Canadian Space Agency has hired 12 astronauts since 1983.

The 3,772 applicants have been going through a rigorous year-long, multi-tiered selection process that tests physical capabilities, health and mental aptitudes.

Applicants have to satisfy specific requirements: a degree in engineering, science or medicine; three years of professional experience; a height between four foot 11 and six foot three inches; weight between 50 and 95 kilograms; and exceptional health and vision correctable to 20/20.

A mother of seven

Sleno also recently gave birth to her seventh child — just 11 months ago.

Sleno and her baby Stetson outdoors in Yellowknife. (Submitted by Nathalie Sleno)

Having to go through rigorous physical testing shortly after giving birth was a challenge that required a lot of discipline and time management, she said.

But she says she has full support from her family. 

"I have seven children so each one of them has their own opinions. But they're all behind me on this one," she said, although one of her daughters doesn't want to move if Sleno were to get the job.

That aside, the family has been absorbed with space.
Sleno's family on a camping trip. (Submitted by Nathalie Sleno)

"Right now, we can't stop watching space on Netflix or on YouTube, watching the live feeds [from the] International Space Station," said Sleno. "My young babies are asking 'mum, are you going to go there one day?'"

Her hope is that her kids see her selection process as an example that "whatever is possible."

"And I hope that they could take that to heart."

'It doesn't seem that real'

Sleno says her strategy during the year-long selection process is "compartmentalization" or time management.

Sleno and her children ice fishing in Yellowknife. (Submitted by Nathalie Sleno)

Amid her busy day-to-day schedule and her preparation, she says being in the top 72 feels like a dream.

"It doesn't seem that real, until I realize how close I am," she said. "I'm honoured."

"I'm here in Yellowknife, I have a job to do, I go to work every morning. I'm home for my kids at night. And we carry on. And I just wait for the news," said Sleno.

She's expecting an email soon from the Canadian Space Agency, indicating whether or not she'll go to the next round.


  • This story has been updated to clarify that Sleno got her pilot's licence privately, not through the military.
    Feb 28, 2017 10:16 AM CT

With files from Loren McGinnis, Mark Hadlari


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