After more than two years of training, Canada’s newest astronaut recruits are ready to get in line for spaceflight opportunities, and those opportunities could see one or both on a mission to the moon someday.
Jenni Sidey-Gibbons and Josh Kutryk graduated from basic training Friday (Jan. 10) along with the rest of their 2017 astronaut candidate “class”, affectionately called the Turtles.
One of the proudest attendees at the ceremony at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was fellow Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen, who supervised the class’ training schedules.
“Josh and Jenni have earned my trust; they are just extraordinary individuals, and I am super proud of them joining our astronaut corps,” he said in a phone interview.
Spaceflight opportunities changing quickly
While Kutryk and Sidey-Gibbons are technically eligible for spaceflight, that won’t happen right away. Astronauts can spend up to 2.5 years in training even after their flight is announced – and if the current flight pace holds, Canada isn’t expected to make an announcement for a couple of years. But the cadence of flights could change very shortly.
Canada now typically flies astronauts every five or six years or so, who stay in space for about six months at a time. This is in accordance with the Canadian Space Agency’s 2.3% contribution to the International Space Station (ISS), chiefly through robotics. Each space station partner receives flights in the same proportion as their contributions. Currently, with only 12 astronaut seats available a year, the last Canadians to fly in space were Chris Hadfield (2012-13) and David Saint-Jacques (2018-19).
In the near future, however, there will be more seats available on spacecraft – and possibly shorter flights, too. Both of these factors would speed up the pace of flight opportunities.
For spacecraft: NASA is expected to authorize its two commercial crew vehicles – SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner – for human flights later in 2020. These spacecraft will take over most of the Russian Soyuz flights that have been ferrying Americans into space since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. Soyuz only holds three people, but the new vehicles can fly up to seven astronauts each.
NASA may also shorten up some of its flight times. The ISS consortium recently flew an eight-day mission for United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, whose country directly paid for his seat in space. NASA expects to open up space station facilities to more private spaceflight opportunities, which could lead to more brief flights – supplementing the current stays of six months.
Also, Canada is positioned to help out with NASA’s push to bring humans back to the moon in 2024. Hansen pointed out that our country was the first international partner to commit to moon missions, by promising a Canadarm3 robotic arm that would be equipped with artificial intelligence.
This contribution means that Canada will continue to play a role in NASA’s program even after ISS retires, which is currently expected in 2024. (Observers say the station could be extended to 2028 or even further, if the international consortium is interested.)
But Canada’s opportunities will be better determined further down the line, Sidey-Gibbons said. “We are still early in the discussions,” she said in an interview. “But it is wonderful,” she added, “that we’ve taken a lead in supporting that … and I also just think that at the Canadian Space Agency, they were lit with fire and built with momentum to support this work.”
What’s next for the astronauts
Hansen – who has been waiting patiently for a flight for more than 10 years – was the first Canadian to supervise an astronaut candidate class’ training. For the past two years, he also worked on the spacecraft procedures to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is an instrument on the ISS. Hansen will walk spacewalking crew members through the repairs later this month, from Mission Control in Houston. Once that’s over, he told SpaceQ, he’ll see what NASA and the Canadian Space Agency ask of him next.
His younger counterparts have also had a busy two years. They learned to operate and repair robotics, perform basic spacewalks, speak Russian, and increase their flying skills.
Kutryk and Sidey-Gibbons also did public relations for Saint-Jacques’ flight, for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 2019, and Canada’s new Junior Astronauts program to showcase to youth opportunities in space. (The Junior Astronauts program was funded along with the Gateway contribution, according to Sidey-Gibbons, meaning that the youth program is very closely linked with Canada’s future in space.)
Additionally, Kutryk participated in Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills (CAVES) in 2019. These three-week European Space Agency expeditions send astronaut teams to a remote underground area in Sardinia, Italy to practice working as a group in a dangerous environment.
“It feels very good,” Kutryk said in an interview, of his shift from a trainee to an operational astronaut. “[You can] take something you’ve been trying to master, and learn, and put in the process to help the team.”
Kutryk said he is looking forward to a “bright and busy” future, which he expects will include assisting other missions and increasing his competencies in all needed astronaut skills. The former test pilot said that one of his favourite aspects of astronaut training was using technology to manage risk, a competency which comes directly from his aviation background.
Sidey-Gibbons just completed her first shift as CapCom in mission control on Wednesday (Jan. 8), and has a busy 2020 ahead of her. She will be the visiting vehicle deputy for the next Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo mission, and then the increment lead for Expedition 63. As increment lead, she explained, “you’re basically supporting the crew and being their representative on the ground for everything to do with the mission … you are a resource who are available to them to make things easier.”
She added that her favourite part of the training was her classmates themselves. “The people that I had the opportunity to train with and learn from, it’s just been the highlight of my career,” said the former fire dynamics researcher. “These people are exceptional. There’s such an emphasis on learning to be a productive and good crewmate.”