On Wednesday, November 22, 2023 the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry announced mission assignments for astronauts Joshua Kutryk and Jenni Gibbons. Here’s what wasn’t said.
Welcome to the first story in our new The Observer column. The column provides commentary on a variety of topics within the space exploration community on a regular basis. While The Observer is primarily penned by Editor-in-Chief Marc Boucher, occasionally we’ll have a guest columnist write their observations of a particular topic. Let’s dive into this weeks commentary.
The Last Canadian on the International Space Station?
We now know that Joshua Kutryk will fly on the first operational Starliner mission, Starliner 1, which is scheduled for No Earlier Than (NET) the first half of 2025. He will then stay and work on the International Space Station (ISS) for approximately six months. If the schedule holds, he would be a crew member on Expedition 73/74.
The last Canadian astronaut to participate in a six month mission was David Saint-Jacques who was on Expedition 58/59 who flew in November 2018 and returned to Earth on June 24, 2019. Prior to Saint-Jacques’s mission, the previous Canadian astronaut to the ISS was Chris Hadfield who flew in November 2012 and returned in May 2013. It was his third and last flight.
In its Commercial Crew Blog update of October 23, 2023 NASA said “The 10th commercial crew rotation opportunity to the space station is targeted for early 2025. NASA is planning for either SpaceX’s Crew-10 or Boeing’s Starliner-1 mission in this slot. The Starliner-1 date was adjusted to allow for the post-flight review of the Crew Flight Test and incorporation of anticipated learning, approvals of final certification products, and completion of readiness and certification reviews ahead of that mission.”
So if Kutryk flies in early 2025 as part of the 10th commercial crew rotation he would return in 2025. If his mission is pushed to the 11th commercial crew rotation he would return in early 2026.
Regardless of when Kutryk returns he very well could be the last Canadian from the professional astronaut core to visit the ISS. As Canada has few crew slots on the ISS and is averaging six years between missions, the timeline suggests Canada won’t have another opportunity as NASA and its partners plan to deorbit the space station in 2030.
Of course there are private missions to the ISS ongoing by Axiom. In April 2022 Mark Pathy was the first Canadian to participate as a private astronaut to visit the ISS. Axiom is currently launching twice a year to the ISS. If that holds, there’s the possibility another private Canadian astronaut could visit the ISS before its deorbited.
But fear not, while the ISS will no longer be a destination for our professional astronaut core after the ISS deorbits, there will be moon missions and at least one private space station destination in the near term.
The First Canadian on the Moon
When Jenni Gibbons was assigned to be part of the Artemis II backup crew and the first Canadian to be a lunar capcom, it also set up a scenario where she could be the first Canadian to set foot on the moon as part of the Artemis IV mission, the second mission to land on the moon, and the first where Canada might have a slot.
As a reminder, Jeremy Hansen is part of the prime crew for the Artemis II mission. So if Gibbons did have to fill in for Hansen on Artemis II, then it’s less likely she would be then be assigned to Artemis IV. And if Hansen couldn’t participate in Artemis II but was available again, and in time for training, he could then slot in on Artemis IV. I know I’m speculating a lot, but hey, it’s fun and there is some rational thinking behind it.
Beyond the missions to the moon, there’s also at least one, perhaps two privately led space stations that NASA is supporting as a replacement for the ISS. Who will be selected, and will there be one or two space stations is still to be decided. But what is clear, is that there will be at least one option. Whoever is selected by NASA it’s very likely Canada will participate in some fashion, even if it’s just to pay for an astronaut to visit and continue conducting research in low Earth orbit. But with a gap more of a possibility now between the time the ISS is deorbited and a new space station is ready, Canada has time to figure out what it will do and won’t consider any astronaut assignments any time soon.
You might also be thinking, what about Canada’s other astronaut, David Saint-Jacques. He was last in space in 2019 and is still on the active roster. When will he fly again? As a doctor he brings a valuable skill set to any mission. However, it would be unusual for him to fly before the other three astronauts have had a chance as none have been to space yet. And with only so many missions available, it’s possible he won’t fly for some time. But he is 53 now and his window to fly is getting shorter. It’s not unheard of an astronaut flying in their 60’s, but it doesn’t happen very often. With Artemis IV planned for NET September 2028, it is possible he could get that assignment if Canada does get a slot. But that slot could already be filled by Gibbons. There is also Artemis VI with a current NET date of September 2030. Canada might have a slot on that mission as well.
How my prognostications stand up to what really happens is way too early to tell, but I do hope you enjoyed our first Observer column and will read those to follow.