Sleep deprivation and mind-bending puzzles were just some of the challenges that Canada's two newest astronauts had to surmount in order to fulfill their dreams and begin their journey to the launch pad.
Now the real fun begins for Joshua Kutryk, 35, a test pilot and lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Jennifer Sidey, a PhD mechanical engineer and lecturer at Cambridge University in the U.K.
After a gruelling selection process, the two were chosen from among 3,772 applicants and 17 finalists who answered the Canadian Space Agency's call for astronauts last year.
At a Canada Day press event at the agency's headquarters in Montreal, the two westerners – both were born in Alberta – were announced as the 13th and 14th astronauts to earn the chance to wear the maple leaf into orbit.
They join David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen to bring the nation's current astronaut corps up to four members. Starting in August, Col. Kutryk and Dr. Sidey will be stationed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will go through a two-year training program that will prepare them for possible missions to the International Space Station and beyond.
The new recruits took a moment to speak with The Globe and Mail about themselves, their new roles and each other.
Did you get to work together during the selection process?
Joshua Kutryk: We sure did. During the very first week of it all, four or five months ago, we were at the Canadian Armed Forces garrison in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, where they train recruits and basic officers. It was the perfect setting for the initial round of astronaut selection testing. For the first exercise, we ended up working late into the night. We were working in small groups and by some strange coincidence I was partnered with Jenni.
Jennifer Sidey: We were sleep deprived. They were testing us on our physical ability. We had some cognitive tasks we had to perform, fine motor control – pretty much everything. They were really pushing us to the limit to see how we would perform when we were stressed and when things were tough.
What did you learn about each other?
JS: The thing that sticks out is that he's such a good person to be in a team with. Even when we were in really difficult conditions, he was offering to take on more than his fair share of the work, just to help us – to help other people on the team. That was such a wonderful trait that he showed to us and that he has shown ever since. Beyond that, he's just got this wealth of experience being a pilot in the military. It's something I've never been exposed to before and I benefit from that enormously.
JK: In turn I would say two things about Jenni: She's persistent and, frankly, just really smart. In my recollection, it was often Jenni coming to the rescue on the really in-depth cognitive problems. And she has the spirit to keep fighting. Right from the beginning we were deliberately stressed, and you start to see someone's real personality in those situations as people get tired. But Jenni was always raring to go and always one of the last to show any signs of fatigue or weakness. I think that served her well.
Why do you want to go to space?
JS: For me it's such an exciting opportunity. Just thinking about how much we have to learn from space, by doing experiments in space – I don't think I've fully wrapped my head around how incredible that is. And to be part of something so new, it's just phenomenal. That's what motivated me.
JK: It's certainly a result of my interests and skills. I've dreamt about flying in space or exploring in general since I was a child. Another strong motivation for me is the desire to give back or to serve. I really do believe in this country; I believe in the goals of the Canadian Space Agency for this country and I've always felt like I have something I can contribute to those goals.
How long have you been thinking about becoming an astronaut?
JS: When I was little I was very inspired by astronauts. But to be honest, as my interests developed I knew I wanted to be a scientist and an engineer and I stuck with that for a long time. It wasn't until the call opened again and then a friend of mine that I know through rugby said, "You should really look at this. You might fit well with what they're looking for."
JK: I've dreamt about doing this job since I was five or six years old. Growing up, I think I was quiet about the goal because it's such a tremendous thing to try to accomplish. But it became more relevant as I went through my professional training. I applied to the Canadian Space Agency in 2008 as well. I wasn't successful then but it's been on my mind ever since.
It looks like you may get to be part of a new phase in human space exploration that goes beyond the space station. What kind of mission opportunities would interest you most?
JK: My background is as a test pilot and so I would love to be involved with the initial sorties of a new vehicle and/or a new destination. I think the technical work that's going to be involved in that kind of exploration in the next few years is something that's very exciting to me and something I'd be eager to do for the agency.
JS: I'm an experimentalist at heart and that's been a big part of my job. Technically speaking, I'm a combustion scientist. When I was an undergraduate at McGill I was involved in experiments that looked at combustion in microgravity and it would be incredible to revisit some of those experiments. A lot of that work relates to transportation, like how we use combustion in plane engines and how we can make it less polluting and more efficient. But I'm also interested in anything else we may be curious about in space and it would be a pleasure to do any of that work.
What do you think about the risk associated with being an astronaut?
JK: I think about risk a lot – particularly as someone in the profession of experimental flying. There is certainly a risk associated with the job of human spaceflight, but I truly believe it's a suitable risk for the right people to be taking, and that it's an essential risk for us to take collectively. There's nothing that defines us better as humans than the passion to explore.
JS: For me, everything that I have dedicated my career to and my life to is about exploration, and that has been such a worthwhile cause for me.
What is your favourite place in Canada?
JS: I am happy when I can spend time in the woods near Comox, B.C., where my family lives now, or in the middle of Vancouver Island. The island is just such a wonderful place. It's like nothing else and I miss it a lot when I'm not there.
JK: For me, it's the farm where I grew up. It's a very special place where I still spend a lot of time. It's in Alberta, about 100 miles east of Edmonton, very isolated and quiet. And you can see the stars there like just about nowhere else in the country.
This interview has been edited and condensed.