Looking for Canada’s Next Generation of Space Explorers

For decades, Canada has made significant contributions to the field of space exploration. These include the development of sophisticated robotics, optics, participation in important research, and sending astronauts into space as part of NASA missions. And who can forget Chris Hadfield, Mr. “Space Oddity” himself? In addition to being the first Canadian to command the ISS, he is also known worldwide as the man who made space exploration fun and accessible through social media.

And in recent statement, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has announced that it is looking for new recruits to become the next generation of Canadian astronauts. With two positions available, they are looking for applicants who embody the best qualities of astronauts, which includes a background in science and technology, exceptional physical fitness, and a desire to advance the cause of space exploration.

Over the course of the past few decades, the Canadian Space Agency has established a reputation for the development of space-related technologies. In 1962, Canada deployed the Alouette satellite, which made it the third nation – after the US and USSR – to design and build its own artificial Earth satellite. And in 1972, Canada became the first country to deploy a domestic communications satellite, known as Anik 1 A1.

The "Canadarm", pictured here as part of Space Shuttle mission STS-2, Nov. 1981. Credit: NASA
The “Canadarm”, pictured here as part of Space Shuttle mission STS-2, it’s first deployment to space, in November of 1981. Credit: NASA

Perhaps the best-known example of Canada’s achievements comes in the field of robotics, and goes by the name of the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (aka. “the Canadarm“). This robotic arm was introduced in 1981, and quickly became a regular feature within the Space Shuttle Program.

“Canadarm is the best-known example of the key role of Canada’s space exploration program,” said Maya Eyssen, a spokeperson for the CSA, via email. “Our robotic contribution to the shuttle program secured a mission spot for our nation’s first astronaut to fly to space –Marc Garneau. It also paved the way for Canada’s participation in the International Space Station.”

It’s successor, the Canadarm2, was mounted on the International Space Station in 2001, and has since been augmented with the addition of the Dextre robotic hand – also of Canadian design and manufacture. This arm, like its predecessor, has become a mainstay of operations aboard the ISS.

Over the past 15 years, Canadarm2 has played a critical role in assembling and maintaining the Station,” said Eyssen. “It was used on almost every Station assembly mission. Canadarm2  and Dextre are used to capture commercial space ships, unload their cargo and operate with millimeter precision in space. They are both featured on our $5 bank notes. The technology behind these robots also benefits those on earth through technological spin-offs used for neurosurgery, pediatric surgery and breast-cancer detection.”

Backdropped against a cloudy portion of Earth, Canada’s Dextre robotic "handyman" and Canadarm2 dig out the trunk of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS after completing a task 225 miles above the home planet. Credit: NASA
Canada’s Dextre robotic “handyman” and Canadarm2 pictured digging out the trunk of a SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS. Credit: NASA

In terms of optics, the CSA is renowned for the creation of the Advanced Space Vision System (SVS) used aboard the ISS. This computer-vision system uses regular 2D cameras located in the Space Shuttle Bay, on the Canadarm, or on the hull of the ISS itself – along with cooperative targets – to calculate the 3D position of objects around of the station.

But arguably, Canada’s most enduring contribution to space exploration have come in the form of its astronauts. Long before Hadfield was garnering attention with his rousing rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, or performing “Is Someone Singing (ISS)” with The Barenaked Ladies and The Wexford Gleeks choir (via a video connection from the ISS), Canadians were venturing into space as part of several NASA missions.

Consider Marc Garneau, a retired military officer and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to go into space, taking part in three flights aboard NASA Space shuttles in 1984, 1996 and 2000. Garneau also served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006 before retiring for active service and beginning a career in politics.

And how about Roberta Bondar? As Canada’s first female astronaut, she had the additional honor of designated as the Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1) in 1992. Bondar also flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42 in 1992, during which she performed experiments in the Spacelab.

The Soyuz TMA-15 crew (from left to right), showing Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, Frank De Winne. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov
The Soyuz TMA-15 crew (from left to right), showing Robert Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, and Frank De Winne. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

And then there’s Robert Thirsk, an engineer and physician who holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours). All three individuals embodied the unique combination of academic proficiency, advanced training, personal achievement, and dedication that make up an astronaut.

And just like Hadfield, Bonard, Garneau and Thirsk have all retired on gone on to have distinguished careers as chancellors of academic institutions, politicians, philanthropists, noted authors and keynote speakers. All told, eight Canadians astronauts have taken part in sixteen space missions and been deeply involved in research and experiments conducted aboard the ISS.

Alas, every generation has to retire sooner or later. And having made their contributions and moved onto other paths, the CSA is looking for two particularly bright, young, highly-motivated and highly-skilled people to step up and take their place.

The recruitment campaign was announced this past Sunday, July 17th, by the Honourable Navdeep Bains – the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Those who are selected will be based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will provide support for space missions in progress, and prepare for future missions.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV

Canadian astronauts also periodically return to Canada to participate in various activities and encourage young Canadians to pursue an education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As Eyssen explained, the goals of the recruitment drive is to maintain the best traditions of the Canadian space program as we move into the 21st century:

“The recruitment of new astronauts will allow Canada to maintain a robust astronaut corps and be ready to play a meaningful role in future human exploration initiatives. Canada is currently entitled to two long-duration astronaut flights to the ISS between now and 2024. The first one, scheduled for November 2018, will see David Saint-Jacques launch to space for a six-month mission aboard the ISS. The second flight will launch before 2024. As nations work together to chart the next major international space exploration missions, our continued role in the ISS will ensure that Canada is well-positioned to be a trusted partner in humanity’s next steps in space.

“Canada is seeking astronauts to advance critical science and research aboard the International Space Station and pave the way for human missions beyond the Station. Our international partners are exploring options beyond the ISS. This new generation of astronauts will be part of Canada’s next chapter of space exploration. That may include future deep-space exploration missions.”

The recruitment drive will be open from June 17th to August 15th, 2016, and the selected candidates are expected to be announced by next summer. This next class of Canadian astronaut candidates will start their training in August 2017 at the Johnson Space Center. The details can be found at the Canadian Space Agency‘s website, and all potential applicants are advised to read the campaign information kit before applying.

Alongside their efforts to find the next generation of astronauts, the Canadian government’s 2016 annual budget has also provided the CSA with up to $379 million dollars over the next eight years to extend Canada’s participation in the International Space Station on through to 2024. Gotta’ keep reaching for those stars, eh?

Further Reading: asc-csa.gc.ca

Astronaut’s Mission Is To Snatch A Dragon Without Crashing The Canadarm

When there’s a Dragon spacecraft coming your way at the International Space Station, you’d better be ready to grapple it with a robotic arm. For if there’s a crash, you will face “a very bad day”, as astronaut David Saint-Jacques points out in this new video (also embedded below the jump).

That’s why the Canadian (along with European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen) was doing robotics training this month at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal. The most terrifying thing for astronauts must be the limited view as they do delicate maneuvers with the multi-million dollar Canadarm2.

“All you’ve got, really, while you’re working, is this workstation,” Saint-Jacques said. “You’ve got a couple of camera views to work from. You’ve got your hand controllers to move the arm, and you’ve got some computer displays, and a bunch of switches here on the left.”

“That’s all you’ve got,” he added. “You’ve really got to think ahead: how you’re going to maneuver this arm without crashing into anything.”

The video is the latest in a training series by Mogensen, who will go to the International Space Station in 2015. Saint-Jacques — a fellow 2009 astronaut class selectee — has not been assigned to a flight yet (at least publicly).

The first Canadarm, which cost about $100 million in late 1970s dollars, flew on the second shuttle flight in 1981. Canadarm2 was constructed for space station construction in the 2000s, and is still used today for spacewalks.

Berthing spacecraft is reportedly not what it was originally designed for, but the robotic arm has proved an able tool to pick up the Dragon spacecraft and other visitors to the station.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the simulator used to train astronauts on Canadarm2, a robotic arm used on the International Space Station. The facility is located at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Canada. Credit: Andreas Mogensen/YouTube (screenshot)
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the simulator used to train astronauts on Canadarm2, a robotic arm used on the International Space Station. The facility is located at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Canada. Credit: Andreas Mogensen/YouTube (screenshot)

Robots And Astronauts Feature In First Glimpse of Canada’s New Space Policy

About six years ago, the Canadarm — Canada’s iconic robotic arm used in space — was almost sold to a company in the United States, along with other space technology from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. The Canadian government blocked the sale and swiftly came out with a promise: a space policy to better support Canada’s industry.

That promise was made in September 2008. “Time is of the essence,” then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice told reporters upon announcing a space policy would be created. Today, 65 months later, the government released the high-level framework of that policy. Astronauts, telescopes and yes, the Canadarm are all prominently mentioned in there.

A lot has happened in six years. Policy-makers used to cite successor Canadarm2’s role in space station construction. Now the arm also does things that were barely imaginable in 2008 — namely, berthing commercial spacecraft such as SpaceX’s Dragon at the International Space Station. It shows how quickly space technology can change in half a decade.

At 13 pages, there isn’t a lot of information in Canada’s framework yet to talk about, but there are some statements about government priorities. Keep the astronaut program going (which is great news after the success of Chris Hadfield). A heavy emphasis on private sector collaboration. And a promise to keep funding Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next large observatory in space.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to his world-famous Expedition 34/35 mission in 2013. Credit: NASA
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to his world-famous Expedition 34/35 mission in 2013. Credit: NASA

These are the Top 5 priorities listed in the plan:

  • Canada First: Serving Canada’s interests of “sovereignty, security and prosperity.” As an example: The country has a huge land-mass that is sparsely populated, so satellites are regularly used to see what ship and other activity is going on in the territories. This is a big reason why the Radarsat Constellation of satellites is launching in 2018.
  • Working together globally: Canada has a tiny space budget ($488.7 million in 2013-14, $435.2 million in 2014-15 and $382.9 million in 2015-16), so it relies on other countries to get its payloads, astronauts and satellites into space. This section also refers to Canada’s commitment to the International Space Station, which (as with other nations) extends to at least 2024. That’s good news for astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, who are waiting for their first trip there.
  • Promoting Canadian innovation: The James Webb Telescope (to which Canada is contributing optics and a guidance system) is specifically cited here along with the Canadarm. Priority areas are Canada’s historic strengths of robotics, optics, satellite communications, and space-based radar, as well as “areas of emerging expertise.”
  • Inspiring Canadians: Basically a statement saying that the government will “recruit, and retain highly qualified personnel,” which in more real terms means that it will need to keep supporting Canadian space companies financially through contracts, for example, to make this happen.

That last point in particular seemed to resonate with at least one industry group.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL

“A long-term strategic plan for Canada’s space program is critical for our industry. In order to effectively invest in innovation, technology and product development, we rely heavily on knowing what the government’s priorities for the space program are,” stated Jim Quick, president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (a major group that represents the interests of private space companies.)

While we wait for more details to come out, here’s some valuable background reading. The space-based volume of the Emerson Report (the findings of a government-appointed aerospace review board listed in 2012) called for more money for and more stable funding of the Canadian Space Agency, among other recommendations.

And here’s the government’s point-by-point response in late 2013. In response to funding: “The CSA’s total funding will remain unchanged and at current levels. The government will also leverage existing programs to better support the space industry.” Additionally, the CSA’s space technologies development program will be doubled to $20 million annually by 2015-16, which is still below the Emerson report’s recommendation of adding $10 million for each of the next three years.

What are your thoughts on the policy? Let us know in the comments.

Chris Hadfield On Space-y $5 Bill: ‘It Reminds Us That Our Dreams Do Not Have A Limit’

In Canada, “gimme five” could soon have a space connotation. Today the country announced it is preparing to put new polymer $5 bills into circulation that feature Canadian robotics and an astronaut.

At the official circulation ceremony near Montreal, Que. was none other than Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who brought unprecedented social media attention to space through social media. The world was enchanted by his guitar playing and crying in space, but in space circles he also commands a lot of respect. The trilingual Hadfield visited two space stations, helped build the robotic Canadarm2 in space, and commanded the International Space Station, among other achievements.

His presence was appropriate, because the $5 bill has a lot of robotics on it. Canadarm2, Dextre and an astronaut are splashed across one face of the bill. “It reminds us that our dreams do not have a limit,” Hadfield said in French.

Canadarm2, Dextre and an unidentified astronaut will all feature on Canada's new $5 bill. Credit: Bank of Canada
Canadarm2, Dextre and an unidentified astronaut on Canada’s new $5 bill. Credit: Bank of Canada

“It serves as a reminder to all Canadians of the dedication and hard work of so many people across the Canadian Space Agency and the space industry across Canada, and the scientists and engineers that make the design of these incredibly complex robots and getting them into space somehow easy,” Hadfield added in English. “Being involved in it is the real inspiration part. Who knows where such innovation can take us.”

The Bank of Canada first unveiled the new $5 and $10 bills in April, while Hadfield was at the helm of the station. Canada’s central banking authority is touting the new plasticized bill series as more durable than past cotton-based ones, with better counterfeit measures such as transparency. Polymer bills are available already in $20, $50 and $100 denominations.

Opposite to the space-themed side of the $5 bill is a picture of past prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. The new $10 bill features a train on one side and (as with the past iteration) John A. Macdonald, the first Canadian prime minister, on the other.

Hadfield himself has featured on both Canadian currency and stamps in the past: the Royal Mint of Canada issued two coins with him and Canadarm2 in 2006, and Hadfield was among several astronauts put on to Canadian stamps in 2003.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield holds a version of the $5 bill on the International Space Station on April 30, 2013. Credit: Bank of Canada (webcast)
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield holds a version of the $5 bill on the International Space Station on April 30, 2013. Credit: Bank of Canada (webcast)

Google Honors Canadarm’s 31st Anniversary

Canada’s most famous robot is on the front page of Google.ca today. The Google doodle honors the 31st anniversary of the first use of Canadarm in space.

Canadarm is a robotic arm that flew on virtually every shuttle mission. The technology is still being used today in space.

According to the 1992 book A Heritage of Excellence, Canada was first invited to work in the shuttle program in 1969. Toronto engineering firm DSMA-Atcon Ltd. initially pitched a Canadian-built space telescope, but NASA was more interested in DSMA’s other work.

“The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland expressed interest in another of DSMA’s gadgets – a robot the company had developed for loading fuel into Candu nuclear reactors,” wrote Lydia Dotto in the book, which Spar commissioned to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

“It was just the thing for putting a satellite they were building into space.”

Dozens of astronauts have used the Canadarms during spacewalks, including Michael L. Gernhardt on STS-104. Credit: NASA

The Canadian government and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding in 1975 to build the arm. Legislation allowing the project to move forward passed the next year. Canadian company Spar became the prime contractor, with DSMA, CAE and RCA as subcontractors.

Engineers had to face several challenges when constructing the Canadarm, including how to grapple satellites. The solution was an “end effector“, a snare on the end of the Canadarm to grasp satellites designed to be hoisted into space.

Several NASA astronauts, including Sally Ride, gave feedback on the arm’s development. Canadarm flew for the first time on STS-2, which launched Nov. 12, 1981. (Ride herself used the arm on STS-7 when she became the first American woman to fly in space.)

Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut in space, has said the arm’s success led to the establishment of the Canadian astronaut program. He flew in 1984, three years after Canadarm’s first flight.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield during an EVA in 2001. Also in the image is the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Some of the arm’s notable achievements:

– Launching space probes, including the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, as well as short-term experiments that ran during shuttle missions;

– Retrieving satellites for servicing. One prominent example was the rescue of the INTELSAT VI satellite on STS-49, which required the first three-astronaut spacewalk;

Launching the Hubble Space Telescope, then retrieving and relaunching it during each repair mission;

– Helping to build the International Space Station along with Canadarm2, its younger sibling;

– Scanning for broken tiles on the bottom of the shuttle. Astronauts used a procedure developed after Columbia, carrying seven astronauts, was destroyed during re-entry in 2003. A Canadarm was modified into an extension boom; another Canadarm grasped that boom to reach underneath the shuttle.

The arm was so successful that MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (which acquired Spar) built a robotic arm for the International Space Station, called Canadarm2. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield helped install the arm during his first spacewalk in 2001.

Canadarm2’s most nail-biting moment was in 2007, when astronauts used it to hoist astronaut Steve Parazynski (who was balancing on the extension boom) for a tricky solar panel repair on the station.

November 3, 2007 – Canadarm2 played a big role in helping astronauts fix a torn solar array. Here, Scott Parazynski analyses the solar panel while anchored to the boom. Credit: NASA

More recently, Canadarm2 was used to grapple the Dragon spacecraft when SpaceX’s demonstration and resupply missions arrived at the International Space Station this year.

MDA recently unveiled several next-generation Canadarm prototypes that could, in part, be used to refuel satellites. The Canadian Space Agency funded the projects with $53 million (CDN $53.1 million) in stimulus money. MDA hopes to attract more money to get the arms ready for space.

You can read more about the Canadarm’s history on the Canadian Space Agency website.