Quirks and Quarks

How fire scientist Jenni Sidey-Gibbons became Canada's youngest astronaut

After graduating from NASA’s astronaut school, Jenni Sidey Gibbons looks ahead to the future of Canada’s role in space exploration.

Sidey-Gibbons is the Canadian Space Agency’s 3rd female astronaut, after Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette

Jenni Sidey-Gibbons is Canada's newest — and youngest — astronaut. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Originally published on February 1, 2020.

Jenni Sidey-Gibbons is a typical overachiever.

At 28 years old, her resume already included mechanical engineer, combustion scientist and lecturer at Cambridge University. When the opportunity came for the Canadian to add "astronaut" to that list, she wanted to see if she had the right stuff.

But as it turns out, even overachievers can feel a moment of what we might consider imposter syndrome.

"I do have memories early on of like: 'What did I get myself into? … I've made so many mistakes. My goodness, I don't even know how this is going to go,'" she told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

"But, they asked me back and continued to do so. It was a really good lesson for me to just back myself a little bit more, push through and don't ask yourself those questions. I mean — just go for it," she said.

Sidey-Gibbons at the launch of fellow Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques. (CSA/ASC)

In 2017, after a lengthy selection process, Sidey-Gibbons was chosen by the Canadian Space Agency to join their ranks, along with pilot Joshua Kutryk. She's the youngest astronaut to be hired by the agency.

This year, on Jan. 10, she graduated from NASA's gruelling two-year training program, officially becoming Canada's 14th astronaut and the third Canadian female astronaut, after Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette. 

"I never presumed early on that I would be one of the two people selected. I just felt very fortunate to be involved," she said.

"It was special. It meant a lot."

From fire research to space school

As a three-year-old living in Calgary, Sidey-Gibbons was fascinated by space. After watching Bondar become the first Canadian woman in space in 1992, she carefully put together a scrapbook of newspaper articles about that mission with help from her mother.

Growing up, her interest shifted to geology, then engineering. She ended up at McGill University to study engineering with a focus on combustion.

At McGill, she worked with the Canadian Space Agency to study how flames work in microgravity.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. I just hope to do my best and be able to share with people growing up in Canada.- Jenni Sidey-Gibbons

Without gravity, fire burns differently than it does on Earth. Whereas a candle flame typically burns in a teardrop shape, in space it burns as a sphere.

"I actually love the kind of human connection that we have with fire — that we've been using it as a tool for all this time, and we're still discovering new things about it and new ways to use it," she said.

Sidey-Gibbons during water survival training at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. (NASA/David DeHoyos)

Sidey-Gibbons moved to the United Kingdom to get her PhD at Cambridge University, working as an assistant professor in internal combustion engines and teaching classes on thermodynamics and flame physics.

She believes that working closely with dangerous elements such as fire and combustion engines may have given her an edge in the recruitment process.

"A lot of my work kind of translates in just the resilience that's required to carry out research in difficult conditions in a lab with a lot of dangers. You obviously have to be very responsible," she said. 

"So it was not only an operational exercise, but certainly an exercise in being a bit gritty and being resilient and confident as well."

Eyes on the moon

Now that she's graduated, Sidey-Gibbons will take on a supporting role on current space flights until it comes time to send her on her own mission.

But she's not sure when, or where, she will go.

"Space is changing pretty quickly because of the way that the commercial crew program is developing," she said, referring to private firms like SpaceX and Boeing, which are hoping to start flying manned missions to the International Space Station this year.

"There's going to be a lot of options to fly, so it's very difficult to predict when that will happen. A couple of years out, surely."

The members of the 2017 NASA Astronaut Class are (from left) Josh Kutryk, Bob Hines, Warren Hoburg, Frank Rubio, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Jasmin Moghbeli, Jessica Watkins, Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, Jonny Kim, Kayla Barron, Zena Cardman, and Loral O' Hara. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

Her graduating class was the first under the umbrella of NASA's Artemis program, which aims to put another man and the first woman on the moon within the next decade.

The idea of being the first Canadian woman on the moon isn't lost on Sidey-Gibbons.

"I would love to see Canada, truthfully, put anyone on the moon. And the fact that we are talking about women being on the moon, I'm just so pleased we're talking about that," she said.

"I would be ecstatic to go to the [International Space Station]. I'll sign up for whatever mission anyone wants to send me on really, any of these space missions. But the idea of going close to or going to the moon is pretty exciting."

Considering how her predecessors Bondar and Payette broke boundaries for Canadian women in science, Sidey-Gibbons hopes that she, too, can act as a role model for Canadians of all stripes.

"We stand on the shoulders of giants," she said. "I benefited directly growing up in Canada by the way that [Payette and Bondar] paved in their careers."

"I just hope to do my best and be able to share with people growing up in Canada."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz