Technology & Science

Canadian Space Agency announces astronaut finalists

A former Olympic kayaker, two medical doctors, scientists in zoology, physics, microbiology and a host of military pilots were among the 16 finalists hoping to be one of two Canadians chosen to blast into space as astronauts.

A former Olympic kayaker, two medical doctors, scientists in zoology, physics, microbiology and a host of military pilots were among the 16 finalists hoping to be one of two Canadians chosen to blast into space as astronauts.

The finalists represent "an incredibly accomplished, well-rounded and diverse group of Canadians," said Canadian Space Agency president and former astronaut Steve MacLean in a statement on Monday, when the finalists were announced at a news conference in Toronto.

"These 16 candidates are truly inspiring and talented Canadians, and if I had my way I'd take all of them," said MacLean.

The 15 men and one woman were chosen from more than 5,300 online applications sent to the agency during a recruitment campaign launched in May 2008, said a news release.

Two astronauts will be chosen from among them in May 2009 after a series of interviews and intensive medical exams over the next two months.

All finalists have already interviewed, completed physical and skill tests in "sometimes extreme conditions" and went through a series of medical exams. They were selected partly based on their creativity, teamwork skills and physical fitness.

For most of the applicants, the tests have been a series of surprises: in one scenario fighting fires in extremely hot conditions and then immediately taking a jump into ice cold water.

Extreme conditions

CF-18 test pilot Stuart Rogerson, a 35-year old British-born Canadian from Powell River, B.C., now living in Cold Lake, Alta., said while having military experience prepared him for the tests, they were still intense.

"I'd been through enough military training experiences to know they are not going to kill me," said Rogerson, one of eight finalists with military flying experience.

"But it was still challenging, and during the experience where we were in a flood situation, I was as cold as I've ever been," he said.

Former Olympic kayaker Peter Giles from Lake Echo, N.S., said the testing was particularly challenging since CSA evaluators gave candidates little indication of what was coming next and what was being tested.

"When you are an athlete, getting to the top level is straightforward — you win the race and you get in," said the 38-year old Giles, who represented Canada at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and works as a system engineer at General Dynamics Canada.

"Here they've done a good job of keeping the testing secret," he said.

Finalists have diverse backgrounds

The tests are mostly designed to test how candidates respond in crisis situations and work with others in a team environment, and Giles is hoping his experiences as an Olympic athlete will serve him in those areas.

Winnipeg native Allyson Hindle, 30, the lone woman among the finalists, said her experience working as a zoologist in extreme environments such as Antarctica has been good preparation for working in space, both from learning to work as part of a team and working in isolation.

"They are similar in that in both cases you need to know the stuff you need and what you have, because you can't run to the corner store and pick it up," she said.

Toronto emergency doctor Christopher Denny, 37, hopes to draw similarly from his experience, which includes working as team physician of Toronto's heavy urban search and rescue team. He said to have got this far was "far beyond" his dreams, but said, ultimately, the experience so far has helped to remind him of the importance of chasing those dreams.

As with many of the candidates, that dream started young.

For Kenneth Welch, a military pilot and nanotechnology researcher working in Sweden, the dream of space began while growing up on a ranch in Cardston, Alta., and looking up at the open sky and seeing the Milky Way.

Now 40, Welch wondered whether his chance would ever come: this is the first astronaut search since 1992, when the agency chose Chris Hadfield, Julie Payette, Dave Williams and Mike Mackay.

"I didn't think I was going to get a chance," he said. "It's hard to believe, but its been a very enjoyable process getting to know the other candidates better."

While Welch had doubts that this chance would come, 26-year-old Joshua Kutryk from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., wondered if it came too soon.

"It takes so many things to line up and I was worried I might be applying a little early," said Kutryk, a tactical fighter pilot  with the Canadian Forces.

"But it's a bit of luxury. If I don't make it here and they do another search in 16 years, I hope I'll still be in good physical condition when I'm 42 to apply again," he said.

The other finalists are:

  • Matthew Bamsey from Burlington and Guelph, Ont., now in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que.
  • Desmond Brophy from Regina, now in Edwards, Calif.
  • Jeremy Hansen from Ailsa Craig, Ont., now in Cold Lake, Alta.
  • Ryan Hunter from Mississauga, Ont., now in Boston.
  • Jameel Janjua from Calgary, now in Alouette (Bagotville), Que.
  • Mark McCullins, an Irish-born Canadian from Winnipeg, now in Brighton, Ont.
  • David Saint-Jacques from Quebec City and St-Lambert, Que., now in Montreal and Puvirnituq, Que. 
  • Geoffrey Steeves from Halifax and Edmonton, now in Victoria.
  • Keith Wilson from Winnipeg.
  • Bruce Woodley from Richmond, B.C., now living in Palo Alto, Calif.