The Canadian Space Agency is Setting the Stage for Deep Space Medical Contributions

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

It doesn’t matter what the name of any particular program is that will eventually see humans once again explore beyond low earth orbit, the stage is being set now as to who will be the leaders, and Canada is trying to define its role.

One of the roles Canada is aspiring to be the leader in, is the area of space health and biomedicine.

In the fall of 2017 the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) held a National Forum on Space, Health and Innovation which followed regional information sessions held in Montreal, Toronto, Halifax, Calgary, and Vancouver.

There have been several outcomes from these events, the summary documents of which are available below.

One of the key outcomes was the creation of an Expert Group on the Potential Canadian Healthcare and Biomedical Roles for Deep Space Human Spaceflight. That expert group provided a report titled Canada’s Leadership in Autonomous Health Systems to the CSA in February of 2018. That report is not available at this time but the CSA said it hopes it will be available in the coming months.

Calling astronaut Dr. Robert Thirsk

As a follow on to the February 2018 report the CSA posted notice on the governments procurement on December 31 of an Advance Contract Award Notice that would be going to Dr. Robert Thirsk for expert advice and support for Canada’s space health initiative. Note that Dr. Thirsk was the main author of the report.

Dr. Robert Thirsk
Dr. Robert Thirsk. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

An Advance Contract Award Notice (ACAN) is not an uncommon procurement tool for the government. Basically, a company, or person, has a very specific product, service, or in this case, skill set, that is likely not available elsewhere. So the government posts notice in advance of awarding the contract to the sole source.

In this case the CSA identified Dr. Robert Thirsk as the sole source for the service they need. The justification they provided is as follows;

As future human spaceflight missions extend to beyond low-Earth orbit, the greater physical distances will necessitate longer mission durations with increased need for medical autonomy of crewmembers. Some of the consequences of longer mission durations included the reduced opportunity for the quick return of sick or injured crewmembers for medical treatment on Earth, increased communications time delays and limited medical resources including access to medical specialist expertise among crewmembers.

Canada has 10 retired astronauts, however, of these, only three practiced medicine. Given that the CSA is seeking expert advice on vision implementation and support to engage the Canadian biomedical and health performance communities, we need a space exploration expert who has a broad understanding of the Canadian health and biomedical community.

Dr. Robert Thirsk on International Space Station Expedition 20-21
Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

Of the three former astronauts with experience in the health care field, only one, Dr. Robert Thirsk, flew on a long-duration space mission (Expedition 20-21, 2008-2009).

As such, Dr. Thirsk is uniquely positioned to provide the CSA with the perspective of a crewmember and medical officer with regards to health and performance requirements during long duration flights, as well as the associated capabilities to meet these requirements.

The expert advice and support being sought by the CSA requires the contractor to have a fairly established network of contacts that includes leaders in the academic, government, industry, healthcare and public domains. The contractor will have to lead/support expert discussions during stakeholder engagement and partnership building activities in order to develop and assess the next steps to further develop elements of the astronaut healthcare vision. Dr. Thirsk’s experience as an astronaut on both the Shuttle and International Space Station missions makes him a suitable spokesperson for Canada’s needs in space health.

As Chair and main author of the Expert Group on the Potential Canadian Healthcare and Biomedical Roles for Deep Space Human Spaceflight (2018), Dr. Thirsk is well-positioned to expand on the outlined recommendations and to identify and analyse how to move towards implementation. His vision and background expertise will guide the CSA towards the next course of action.

In addition to his unique background as a trained medical doctor and his experience with long duration spaceflights, Dr. Thirsk has held several distinguished positions in a variety of organizations, which position him very well for this stakeholder engagement and partnership building exercise. He is currently the past Chancellor of the University of Calgary and has served as the Vice-President of Public, Government and Institute Affairs with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and as a faculty member at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Dr. Thirsk also participated in the Panel on the Health Risk of Spaceflight during CSA’s National Forum on Space, Health and Innovation in 2017 where he shared relevant context on healthcare delivery challenges and viewpoints.

It seems clear that Dr. Robert Thirsk is well suited to the role.

His task would include:

The expert is to advise and support as per guidance by the CSA Director General of Policy, namely on stakeholder engagement, partnership building and astronaut health care vision development.

  • Providing the perspective of a crewmember and medical officer with regards to health and performance requirements during long duration flights, as well as the associated capabilities to meet these requirements;
  • Defining effective means to engage and build partnerships with the Canadian biomedical, health and performance communities so that space health care solutions contribute to the improvement of remote health care delivery on Earth, in addition to other terrestrial health care benefits;
  • Recommending to CSA effective means to engage international partners, notably NASA, in order to secure a critical and visible role in the area of astronaut health and performance;
  • Articulating ideas and concepts that could be presented to the health and biomedical community, and eventually to the Canadian government, to further define, scope or assess potential Canadian role;
  • Analyzing and prioritizing ideas, concepts and proposals resulting from the engagement with the Canadian community – based on the stated objectives;
  • Providing expert advice in decision making as the Director General sees fit.

The contract is from the award date through March 31, 2020. The ACAN notice ends on January 31 so the contract will be finalized after that date. The CSA as an option for a second year starting on April 1, 2020 though March 31, 2021. The base period contract value is $45,500 and the option year is $49,500.

1st Canadian Space Health Research Symposium

Another development is the announcement of the 1st Canadian Space Health Research Symposium which will be held this fall in Calgary. The announcement came via a Tweet on New Year’s Day. A new Twitter account called Canadian Space Health (@Space_Health) Tweeted the announcement. It got our attention when it was retweeted by Thirsk.

The symposium has few details at this time but does name an advisory board of ten doctors from across Canada. The symposium is not a result of the CSA National Forum but is an independent effort by the organizers. The CSA told SpaceQ in an email that they “are currently working together to determine how the CSA can best support this conference.”


Regional Space Health Information Sessions


Planning Canada’s Next Chapter in Human Space Exploration: Health and Biomedical Roles


Advance Contract Award Notice (ACAN) Title: Expert Advice and Support


About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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