2 Canadians picked to launch new careers as astronauts

David Saint-Jacques is a medical doctor with a PhD in astrophysics and Jeremy Hansen is an award-winning fighter pilot, but now they can both add another title to their prestigious resumés: astronaut.

Jeremy Hansen is an award-winning fighter pilot, and David Saint-Jacques is a medical doctor with a PhD in astrophysics, but now they can both add another title to their prestigious resumés: astronaut.

Canadian Space Agency head and former astronaut Steve MacLean and Industry Minister Tony Clement introduced the newest two members of the country's astronaut corps at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa on Wednesday.

MacLean said knows from experience that their new careers will "will be a fulfilment of an adventure and, as well, personally and professionally fulfilling."

"They will do important work on behalf of Canada and I believe that in the future, they will do important work on behalf of humanity," he added.

Saint-Jacques, 39, said he was "gobsmacked" when he was given the news in MacLean's office earlier this week.

"It's a big thing to learn — too big to swallow in one shot," said the doctor, who practises at Inuulitsivik Health Centre in Puvirnituq, northern Quebec.

Saint-Jacques, who was born in Quebec City and raised in Saint-Lambert, Que., also works as a clinical faculty lecturer at McGill University's faculty of medicine and has a PhD in astrophysics from Cambridge University in the U.K.

Hansen, 33, said he, too, was overwhelmed when he received the phone call at his home in Cold Lake, Alta., on Monday, where he serves as a CF-18 fighter pilot.

Hansen, who was born in London, Ont., and raised in Ingersoll, Ont., is Combat Operations Officer at 4 Wing Cold Lake and holds a number of awards for his proficiency as a pilot.

Boyhood dreams

Both men said becoming an astronaut was a boyhood dream. Saint-Jacques said he was inspired by images of Neil Armstrong on the moon and images of the Earth as seen from there, while Hansen said he was simply drawn by "that excitement of flying in space, doing something that's difficult and challenging and maybe even a little risky."

The two have spent the past year going through a rigorous process to be selected from a field of 5,351 applicants. Of those applicants, 79 were chosen for preliminary interviews. Thirty-nine candidates completed flight operation, robotics aptitude and fitness tests, then 31 went to Halifax for tests that examined their ability to deal with high-pressure situations.

Saint-Jacques said one test simulated a helicopter crashing into the ocean. The candidates were asked to perform safety procedures after only hearing them once. Hansen said in another, the candidates were put in a flaming room on a ship and had to put out the fires.

"It's like being inside a barbeque," he said. "That was draining — I have a whole new respect for firefighters."

In March, 16 finalists were chosen. MacLean said picking just two astronauts from among them was a very difficult task.

"I feel I could have hired the 12th individual and he could have served Canada well," MacLean said. "It really gave me a measure of hope to see all the talent out there for this country."

Clear thinkers under pressure

MacLean said Hansen's "phenomenal" situational awareness set him apart.

"When we had him in the pressure-type tests … you could tell that under pressure, he's a clear thinker, and David wasn't far behind," MacLean said.

He added that Saint-Jacques's interactive approach to science is something he likes and that Canada will need on the International Space Station.

"So these two complement each other very well."

When asked what they hope to do in space, both said they believe a realistic goal will be to serve on the International Space Station, where Canada has slots reserved for its astronauts. 

"I guess the ultimate dream is to be in space and work and live in space, so I'm looking forward to that," Hansen said.

Saint-Jacques said he is keen to work with extraordinary people from around the world and contribute to medical and astronomy research in space.

"I'm just starting to dream now, I think," he said. "I'm opening a new door."

Moon mission a possibility

Both astronauts said they would also jump at the chance to volunteer to go to the moon.

MacLean said given that three missions to the moon are planned starting in 2020 as part of the Global Space Exploration Strategy that Canada is taking part in, that is a possibility.

Before that, however, the two must undergo four to five more years of rigorous training in order to become eligible to serve on space missions.

They will be heading down to NASA's astronaut school in August.

The pair will join current astronauts Robert Thirsk, Julie Payette and Chris Hadfield as active members of the Canadian astronaut corps.

Both Thirsk and Payette are scheduled to fly into space this year. On May 27, Thirsk will be lifting off on a Soyuz rocket bound for the International Space Station, where he is scheduled to stay for six months.

Payette will join him on the station in June, as she is travelling to the orbiting outpost on the space shuttle Endeavour on June 13.