Cal­gary as­tro­naut re­flects on year of train­ing as fel­low Cana­dian launched into space

Fort McMurray Today - - ALBERTA NEWS - SHAWN LOGAN

Mon­day was far from the first time Cal­gary as­tro­naut-in­train­ing Jenni Sidey-gib­bons cast her eyes sky­ward.

But this time, it was dif­fer­ent for the 30-year-old me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer and com­bus­tion sci­en­tist, as she watched her Cana­dian Space Agency col­league David Saint-jac­ques breach Earth’s at­mos­phere in a Rus­sian Soyuz space­craft, suc­cess­fully com­plet­ing the six­hour jour­ney to dock with the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion just af­ter noon Cal­gary time.

“It’s in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing. The hu­man side of it, of see­ing David fi­nally launch is amaz­ing,” said Sidey-gib­bons, who watched the first Cana­dian fly into space since Chris Had­field in 2013 at Cana­dian Space Agency head­quar­ters in St. Hu­bert, Que­bec.

“I feel so proud to be in a corps with the peo­ple I work with.”

It’s been just over a year since Sidey-gib­bons was se­lected along with Fort Saskatchewan’s Joshua Kutryk to join Canada’s ranks of as­tro­nauts from a short list of 17 can­di­dates. Since last Au­gust, she’s un­der­gone rig­or­ous as­tro­naut can­di­date train­ing at the Lyn­don B. John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton, study­ing ev­ery­thing from ro­bot­ics to Rus­sian to an in­ti­mate un­der­stand­ing of ev­ery switch, but­ton and tog­gle on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

In prepa­ra­tion for the chal­lenge of work­ing in zero-grav­ity en­vi­ron­ments, she’s also logged many hours in the Sonny Carter Train­ing Fa­cil­ity’s neu­tral buoy­ancy lab, a mas­sive dive tank that in­cludes full-scale mock ups of ISS mod­ules and com­po­nents.

Those train­ing ses­sions, in which Sidey-gib­bons dons a full space­suit while learn­ing to ma­nip­u­late tools and pro­pel her­self in a weight­less en­vi­ron­ment, can be par­tic­u­larly tax­ing, she said.

“The space­suit can be very dif­fi­cult to ma­noeu­vre — it feels like like you’re op­er­at­ing this ma­chine, like it is your own lit­tle hu­man-shaped space­craft,” she said of the sim­u­lated space walks.

“But your space­suit doesn’t move the way your body moves.

“You re­ally have to be phys­i­cally ro­bust. You can spend six hours of work or even longer in a suit.”

The in­ten­sive train­ing has also seen Sidey-gib­bons take the yoke of a su­per­sonic T-38 Talon jet trainer (her favourite part of the job so far), which aids prospec­tive as­tro­nauts in mak­ing quick de­ci­sions in crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions.

“You have to think fast. You think in terms of about a mile a minute, but this is more like a mile ev­ery 20 sec­onds,” she said.

Now more than half­way through her two years of ba­sic as­tro­naut train­ing, Sidey-gib­bons noted even when that hur­dle is com­pleted, the train­ing con­tin­ues un­til the day she’s fi­nally cho­sen to take her place among the stars, a dream she said she’s car­ried since she was a child.

It would make her the third Cana­dian fe­male as­tro­naut in space, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Roberta Bon­dar and now-gover­nor Gen­eral Julie Payette, who paved the way for Cal­gary-born Sidey-gib­bons.

“There’s so many op­por­tu­ni­ties now,” Sidey-gib­bons said of modern space­flight, which has seen com­mer­cial in­ter­ests en­ter the field, which once was only the do­main of gov­ern­ments.

“It’s re­ally changed what the next gen­er­a­tion thinks is pos­si­ble. As far as time­lines (for her own first space­flight), it’s dif­fi­cult to tell be­cause of how fast space is chang­ing.

“It’s just go­ing to change very rapidly and it’s very ex­cit­ing.”

NASA/BILL STAFFORD

The 2017 Cana­dian Space Agency as­tro­naut team. Jenni Sidey-gib­bons is in the back. Front, left to right: David Saint-jac­ques, Joshua Kutryk, Jeremy Hansen.

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