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The Development of a Canadian Astronaut Program

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In the summer of 1983, the National Research Council placed a help wanted ad in newspapers across Canada. NRC was looking for six people to develop experiments, perform public awareness activities, and undertake what would probably be the most exciting voyage of their lives – a journey into space.

More than 4,300 applications poured into the NRC from students, poets, journalists, engineers and scientists of all stripes, each wanting the chance to become a Canadian astronaut.

Space fever

Another great Canadian contribution to space travel - the Canadarm. 
Another great Canadian contribution to space travel - the Canadarm.
In the early 1980s, Canadians of all ages were fascinated with Space. Canada's involvement with NASA's space shuttle program, coupled with the high-profile success of the Canadarm (developed under NRC leadership) on space shuttle Columbia flights in 1981 and 1982, fuelled this enormous public interest. Canadians wanted to know if they too would one day have the chance to fly in Space.

Canada's enthusiasm paid off when NASA was about to expand its Space program with projects like the International Space Station. Looking for international partners for this next phase of space exploration, NASA chose to continue its long history of successful space collaborations with Canada.   In 1982, Canada was informally invited to consider participating in the Space Station program and send a Canadian on a shuttle mission as a payload specialist.

When NRC placed its help wanted ad in Canadian newspapers, it sparked widespread media and public attention. Amid an overwhelming flurry of applications, NRC eventually selected six people for its new Canadian Astronaut Program Office in 1983: Marc Garneau, Bjarni Tryggvason, Steve MacLean, Ken Money, Roberta Bondar and Robert Thirsk.

A payload specialist is not an astronaut as we know them, but rather someone specially trained to fly and carry out experiments in Space. NRC developed two experiments to be carried out by the first Canadian payload specialist in Space: testing the NRC-invented Space Vision System for guiding the Canadarm, and studying Space adaptation syndrome – the condition that causes nausea and fatigue in astronauts when they first enter Space.

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A change of plans

Before the new NRC employees even began their training in 1984, NASA surprised NRC by asking for a Canadian to fly on a mission well ahead of schedule. Timetables were thrown out the window and all efforts focused on getting the astronauts ready as quickly as possible. They underwent training that included lectures in astronomy, earth physics and space medicine, as well as physical testing of how they adapted to unusual motions, zero gravity, and high altitude flight. All the while, the astronauts made public appearances to satisfy the country's curiosity about space.

Marc Garneau was selected to be the first Canadian in Space. He would perform experiments on Space adaptation syndrome, the Space Vision System, how certain materials react to space exposure, a sun photometer, and recording a strange glow coming from the shuttle.

NRC's original Canadian Space Team. Back row (from l-r): Bjarni Tryggvason, Robert Thirsk, Roberta Bondar, Steve MacLean. Front row: Ken Money and Marc Garneau. 
NRC's original Canadian Space Team. Back row (from l-r): Bjarni Tryggvason, Robert Thirsk, Roberta Bondar, Steve MacLean. Front row: Ken Money and Marc Garneau.
NRC rushed to prepare the experiments and make sure everything was cleared with NASA and compatible with the space shuttle – a seemingly impossible task that was successfully completed by the time Garneau went into Space aboard the Challenger shuttle on October 5, 1984.

Upon his return, Garneau was praised as a trail-blazer and hero and was compared to Canada's earliest explorers. He participated in a cross-country tour to address the media frenzy and promote Space science in Canada.

Continuing contributions

When the Challenger accident of January 1985 put a hold on the space shuttle flight schedule, Canadians used the opportunity to develop their space program further – working on the Space Vision System, planning experiments that would be conducted in space, developing technology to be used on future flights, and preparing their astronauts to become full-fledged mission specialists.

Space shuttle launch 
Space shuttle launch

In 1989, the Canadian Astronaut Program "spun off" from NRC to form the core of the Canadian Space Agency. However, NRC continues to play an active research and development role in the program and the technology used in Space today, like the Canadarm 2 on the International Space Station.

Today, Canadians are full-fledged members of the international astronaut corps, contributing to the evolution of space programs and technology both in Canada and the world. To date, eight Canadian astronauts have flown on 11 shuttle flights.

The Canadian Space Agency's current team of six astronauts still includes three of the original NRC team – Steve MacLean, Bjarni Tryggvason and Robert Thirsk – who all continue to reap the rewards of answering a help wanted ad more than 20 years ago.