Aspiring Saskatoon astronaut eyes private space travel as best bet

Saskatoon biomedical engineer Doug Campbell is graduating from a citizen-astronaut academy that he hopes will help get him a ticket to space.

Saskatoon engineer Doug Campbell completes citizen scientist-astronaut academy in preparation for space travel

Doug Campbell completed a two-week simulated mission to Mars in the Utah desert. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

Saskatoon biomedical engineer Doug Campbell believes he will make it to space in his lifetime, most likely on a commercial flight, and has gone to great depths and heights to prepare himself.

Campbell, 33, will graduate in August from a two-year program that focuses on astronautics research, training and simulation. The course is offered by Untethered Exploration, a private academy in the United States that offers training for space and deep sea exploration.

As part of the curriculum, he lived in an above-ground bunker in the Utah desert for 14 days in a simulated mission to Mars. The "space" lab had a greenhouse and living quarters. To step outside, he had to wear a full space suit to mimic the protection needed in a Martian environment.

During the mission, Campbell built and tested a dishwasher that cleans dishes with ultraviolet rays — rather than soap and water — as a way to solve an everyday problem for a colony on Mars.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to become an astronaut.

"It's my passion. But, it's a very hard career to get into, obviously," Campbell said. "Still, with that eye on the prize … it's getting more and more viable every day." 

Scientists, astronomers, physicists, biologists, geologists, and engineers use the Mars Desert Research Station to conduct research in the Mars-like environment. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)
Doug Campbell met one of his idols, Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who went into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

Private spaceflight

As the world marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this week, Campbell has never felt so hopeful that his day in space will come, although he believes it will be on a commercial space flight rather than a government-sponsored mission.

"I think there will be many, many opportunities coming over the next 20 years that I might be able to do some research, even for a short-duration flight," Campbell said.

The Canadian Space Agency has trained 14 astronauts since 1983. 

Doug Campbell says his desire to become an astronaut and go to space is "a passion." (Submitted by Doug Campbell)
In a simulated mission to Mars, Campbell could only step outside the bunker in a space suit to mimic the necessary protection in the Martian environment. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has completed suborbital spaceflight tests and promises to send thousands of "non-professional astronauts" to space. Customers will pay as much as $250,000 for a seat.

Competitors include Blue Origin, which advertises three minutes in space, and SpaceX, a company that plans to fly a Japanese billionaire around the moon in the next decade.

Even NASA has announced it will allow private citizens to spend up to 30 consecutive days aboard the International Space Station, ferried there by SpaceX or Boeing, for a whopping $58 million.

'I'm very hopeful'

Gordon Osinski, acting director of Western University's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, said private spaceflights like the one Campbell hopes to embark on could be a boon to the scientific community.

Osinski, a planetary geologist, wants to send instruments into orbit to capture imagery and chemical data on rocks on the moon.

"As university academics, we have to totally expand our thinking [about how to collect data in space]," Osinski said.

Planetary geologist Gordon Osinski says he's optimistic about government-sponsored and private space exploration, in the wake of a what he calls a disappointing decade for the Canadian Space program. (Submitted by Gordon Osinski)

Osinski said paying a private company to transport instruments could save millions of dollars. He said budget cuts at the Canadian Space Agency have meant universities and companies have suffered in the past decade.

"We have lost some capacity," he said.

The federal government recently announced that Canada will contribute money and infrastructure to NASA's return mission to the moon. Osinski said he's optimistic that world space agencies and private companies will be pushing the limits in years to come. 

Space dreams

Campbell visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a five-year-old, during a trip to Disney World with his family. He marvelled at the massive Saturn V rocket that propelled astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to the moon in 1969. 

It sparked his dream to become an astronaut.

Doug Campbell became fascinated by space after visiting the Kennedy Space Center, and seeing the Saturn V rocket, when he was five years old. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)
Doug Campbell completed underwater egress training to learn how to exit a submerged aircraft. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

He later earneed a master's degrees in mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. Campbell works for the Saskatchewan Health Authority and pursues his space training and research on the side.

In 2016, he was one of 3,772 Canadians to apply for two spots with the Canadian Space Agency. It selected air force pilot Joshua Kutryk and mechanical engineer Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons, both of Alberta.

Campbell said part of the reason he pursued private astronaut training was to beef up his resume for the space agency's next round of hiring.

The training program included underwater escapes from submerged vessels and aerobatic flights to expose him to crushing G-forces.

"I loved it. I love every minute of it,." Campbell said. "Being upside down, looking at the Earth from a different direction than I normally do was awe-inspiring." 

Aspiring astronaut Doug Campbell lived in the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah for two weeks to simulate a mission to Mars. (Submitted by Doug Campbell)

At the Mars Desert Research Station outside Hanksville, Utah, he got a taste of what it would be like to live inside a spaceship with a small crew.

In October, Campbell will spend five days living in a small submarine off the coast of Florida to test changes to his brain and body while living in contained quarters underwater.

He considers it to be his small contribution to any future space missions.

"Even if I never go, I feel like the research I do here on Earth … I can still contribute in my own way, even if I truly never go to space."

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a Master's in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.