Defence Team has long tradition with astronaut program

Three people with specialty gear on an inflatable boat in water.
The astronaut candidates during the second series of aptitude tests in Halifax. Photo: MCpl Chris Ringius, CSA

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This is the second in a three-part article series on the support the Defence Team provided to the Canadian Space Agency during its 2017 astronaut recruitment campaign.

By Diane Riddell, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

Each of the four times the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has run an astronaut selection process, at least one of the selected astronauts has been a member of the Defence Team. They are now among Canada’s best-known astronauts: the Honourable Marc Garneau, Colonel Chris Hadfield, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeremy Hansen, Michael McKay and Ken Money. Since the National Research Council ran the first process in 1983, before the creation of the CSA, 14 Canadian astronauts have been selected. Among them, seven astronauts had a connection to the Department of National Defence (DND) or the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Since many people in the CAF and DND apply and compete well in the astronaut selection process, it was important to conduct a fair and transparent competition. All assessors, personnel selection officers and scientists were asked to declare any relationship they might have with the candidates, and did not test any candidates with whom they had a relationship. They were also asked not to read any biographies or information online about the candidates. Further, none of the candidates were known by their names; each wore a singlet with a number on it.

“It wasn’t known whether they were military or not,” said Patrick Gagnon, senior manager of Human Performance at the Directorate of Fitness (DFIT).  “Assessors would address them with their candidate numbers.”

A total of 72 astronaut candidates, selected by the CSA from 3772 applicants, arrived at their first assessment centre in Saint-Jean, Que., in February 2017. The first phase of assessment primarily focused on individual performance. By the end, the 32 candidates who made the cut were sent on to a second assessment centre in Halifax in March 2017.

The second phase focused on team and group performance, and sought to simulate the conditions astronauts would encounter. “We can’t take them to space, but we can build in some similar conditions,” said Dr. Joy Klammer, director of Research Personnel Generation at Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis. “For example, we can look at how they lead when they need to, and how they step back and be a functioning, coherent team player. That’s easy to do at the very beginning when they are calm and rested. But what you really want to see is what happens when someone has been through a lot of physical and mental stressors. How are they reacting then?”

“So we built in some of the physical fatigue linked to the job, and tried to extract the attributes or behaviours we wanted to see in those candidates in a way that a pen and paper exercise wouldn’t be able to assess,” added Mr. Gagnon.

By the end of testing at the Halifax Assessment Centre, there were 17 candidates still in the process, 10 of whom were members of the Defence Team–9 serving members and one reservist. The remaining candidates were put through a number of other tests at this stage. This included air crew and other medical testing conducted at the Canadian Forces Environmental Medicine Establishment in Toronto, followed by the final interviews done at the CSA .

There was tremendous support in running the assessment centres from personnel selection officers, defence scientists, fitness professionals from the local Personal Support Program teams, and military members and other staff located in Saint-Jean and Halifax.

“We demanded a lot of them,” said Dr. Klammer.  “Each day was a long day and everyone was phenomenal.”

The final announcement was made on Parliament Hill on Canada Day. The two astronauts selected were Joshua Kutryk, a Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot, and Dr. Jennifer Sidey, a lecturer at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

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