Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Canadian Astronaut Announcement Standard Operating Procedure

Last week to great fanfare the Canadian government announced that it was renewing its commitment to the International Space Station through 2024, joining the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union in extending its involvement in the ISS beyond 2020.

During that time, Canada’s two remaining active astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will each get a chance to fly to the ISS, one within four years and the other by 2024. "Selection of the CSA astronaut to fly first will be based on mission requirements, which will be discussed with ISS partners during the coming months,” a government news release said.

Both Saint-Jacques and Hansen joined the Canadian astronaut team in 2009 and underwent the two-year NASA training regimen for new astronauts. Saint-Jacques is a medical doctor and Hansen was a CF-18 pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the decision about who orbits first will probably relate to which skill set is in demand when a slot for a Canadian astronaut opens up.

Two years have gone by since Chris Hadfield returned to Earth from his historic turn as the first Canadian commander of the ISS, and Hansen and Saint-Jacques will have to wait their turns as flight assignments are doled out according to the size of the sponsoring country’s contribution to the ISS. Canada’s contributions to the ISS - the Canadarm2, Dextre robot manipulator and the rest of the Mobile Servicing System - play important roles in the maintenance of the station but only amount to a small fraction of the total cost of the ISS.

The two Canadian astronauts have the unenviable task of following Hadfield as the public faces of the Canadian Astronaut Program without having had the chance to fly themselves, and I have seen them carry out the repetitive public relations duties of astronauts with grace and good humour. That extended to last week’s announcement, when the Canadian Space Agency posted a Meme on its Facebook page making fun of the competition between the two men for the next Canadian flight to the ISS.

One question that the remains unanswered is how the two Canadians will make their journeys into space. Julie Payette was the last Canadian to fly on the shuttle, back in 2009 when she visited the ISS in the  middle of Bob Thirsk’s long-duration stay on the ISS. Thirsk and Hadfield got to the ISS on Russian Soyuz ferries, which continue to be the only way to get to the ISS. 

NASA and many U.S. lawmakers hope to shift the work of flying astronauts to and from the ISS to competing spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program. While both spacecraft are scheduled to start flying astronauts in 2017, funding restraints have already pushed that date back from the originally scheduled 2015 start date.

Last week’s announcement by the Canadian government was hardly surprising given our investment in the ISS up to this time and given the fact that a pullout by Canada would be highly embarrassing and highly contentious with Canada’s major trading partners. 

An election is approaching, and for a government known to wring every ounce of political credit out of everything it does, the publicity surrounding last week’s announcement that Canada is staying the course in space is standard operating procedure in Stephen Harper's Ottawa.

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