BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN – These days, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques is getting the lion’s share of human spaceflight attention in Canada. He made two appearances at the rollout of the Expedition 56/57 Soyuz rocket on June 4, talking about how his training for this backup crew will help him prepare for his own mission in December.
“It’s a couple of theory exams that carry forward,” Saint-Jacques said in an impromptu press conference with Canadian media when asked how his backup training will differ from his prime crew training. “But the technical and simulator exams you have to do again, with really, a bit more scrutiny from the [Russian] commission.”
His colleague, astronaut Jeremy Hansen, was selected along with Saint-Jacques in 2009. But Canada’s current smaller contribution to the International Space Station program, relative to our partners, means that we only fly astronauts every four or five years now; observers peg Hansen’s flight as no earlier than 2022.
Hansen has been quiet on Twitter in the past few weeks since coming back from a tour of several communities in northern Ontario. But don’t let his silence fool you. Hansen is busy working with the next generation of astronauts, and likely he will also fly the next generation of spaceships. In between his duties supervising training for the 2017 class of astronauts – a first for a Canadian – he will also continue a flexible training path that may land him in the pilot’s seat of a commercial crew vehicle.
NASA and its international partners (including Canada) currently fly all astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which launch here from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. While select astronauts took Soyuz flights in years past, the situation changed in 2011 when NASA retired its space shuttle program – leaving no way to bring astronauts into space itself until its commercial crew vehicles were ready.
In principle, those vehicles should be ready soon. The last Soyuz flight that NASA has purchased seats for is May 2019, according to Bernardo Patti, the European Space Agency’s head of ISS program and exploration development. And commercial crew vehicles are expected to enter uncrewed testing late in 2018 or early in 2019.
The transition to commercial crew likely won’t be a sudden one, Patti said, although he cautioned the best source available to speak to that is NASA. (The agency is considering extending ISS stays or taking other measures for flights starting in late 2019.)
As far as Patti heard, there will probably be two Soyuz flights a year when commercial crew is ready, with the balance of launch demand handled by the new vehicles. But there still could be delays in implementing the new program, he cautioned.
“Let’s be fair – the ATV and HTV programs weren’t built overnight,” said Patti, referring to cargo ships from Europe’s and Japan’s space programs. “We struggled big-time during development; it was all new and an ambitious development challenge.”
Another factor is the need to maintain crew safety at a higher level than the Apollo moon crews had in the 1960s, he said. “We were aggressive with the schedule and the rocket [then], but society has changed from the 1960s,” he said.
Using Jeremy’s skills
Hansen has been a pilot since age 12, when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Cadets program. He was a former CF-18 fighter pilot, including for NORAD. Given this combination of skills and Hansen’s nine years in the astronaut program, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is pushing for him to be a pilot of a commercial spacecraft.
It’s an unprecedented ask for Canada; with the exception of Chris Hadfield, who commanded the ISS in 2013, all other Canadians in space were either payload specialists (responsible for particular experiments or payloads on the space shuttle) or mission specialists or flight engineers qualified to do spacewalks and other complex responsibilities. But CSA astronaut office head Edward Tabarah said he feels the timing is right.
“He’s been branch chief, which speaks to the trust they [NASA] have of him,” Tabarah told SpaceQ during the erection operations of the Expedition 56/57 Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. “He also was in charge of the astronaut class of 2017, which shows a huge trust in him.”
NASA astronaut Pat Forrester was named chief of the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 2017. At Baikonur, he told SpaceQ that Hansen was a natural choice for training the new astronauts because the 42-year-old has personality qualities that Forrester would like to see in all space crews.
“Integrity, ability to communicate and work ethic,” said Forrester when asked what makes Hansen stand apart. “With such a man of character, if that [new astronaut] group has some of his traits, that would be good,” he added.
The commercial crew vehicle training operations are still being determined. In 2015, NASA announced four astronauts tagged for eventual commercial crew flights: Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. They are helping SpaceX and Boeing develop the procedures, human factors, and other astronaut interfaces.
Canada’s two new astronauts may also fly on commercial vehicles, Tabarah noted, but that won’t take place until much later in the 2020s. Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey are still in their first year of required two-year basic astronaut training. Then like Saint-Jacques and Hansen before them, they will need to wait in line until Canada has another spaceflight opportunity.