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Two of Canada’s Astronaut Finalists Tell Us Where in Space They’d Like to Fly

Here are the 17 remaining candidates to be Canada's next astronauts.

by Lisa Cumming
Apr 24 2017, 5:04pm

Astronaut candidate Vanessa Fulford during aptitude tests. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Canada is getting closer to naming its next two astronauts, who should be officially selected later this year. On Monday, Minister for Innovation Navdeep Bains and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen got together in Toronto to announce the final 17 candidates who'll be competing for those two spots, and hopefully will blast off into space in the coming years.

Candidates at the announcement. Image: Lisa Cumming

Five of the 17 are women, good news for those who've been hoping to see more female space travellers. Both active astronauts—Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, who is headed to space in 2018—are male. The last female Canadian to fly in space was Julie Payette, in 2009.

Hansen said diversity among astronauts is important. "Canada's core is small. There are two of us right now, and we're going to be four," he told Motherboard in an interview. "It's really important that we have those role models," Hansen continued. "And I'm delighted to see we have such shining examples of women [in the running]."

Astronaut finalist Nathalie Sleno, a medical officer based in in Yellowknife, always knew she wanted adventure, she told me at the announcement. When the opportunity to become an astronaut presented itself, she said, she couldn't let it slip by.

"I grew up wanting a life that was full of challenges," she said. "I love science, and from the very beginning I was always looking to the stars for one reason or another."

Sleno participates in aptitude tests. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Her passion for science took her through a variety of disciplines: flying, teaching, military and medicine. Of the application process, Sleno said she's been focused on trying to live normally and waiting to hear back to see if she'd made it to the next level.

"It's been a very long process," she said. "One of the phases, simply put, was very intense physically, very intense mentally."

Read more: What It's Like to Be in the Running to Be an Astronaut

"When I started out the journey I didn't know I would make it this far," she said.

Another finalist, Vanessa Fulford, who is a flight test engineer in Cold Lake, Alberta, said her army background prepared her for the gruelling physical testing. But some of the exercises, like exiting an upside-down helicopter, were outside of what she had had to do before.

"I just decided I was going to be awesome at it," she said.

Vanessa Fulford participates in testing. Image: Canadian Space Agency

As of now, the International Space Station is set to run at least through to the year 2024. When I asked Sleno where in space she might go if she is selected—whether it's to Mars or the Moon or somewhere else—she said that it's hard to say for sure, because of all the changes expected as the commercialization of space travel continues to take hold in a big way.

"It's a very exciting time for space exploration," she said, referring to private space flights. Right now, SpaceX is working on having the capability to take astronauts to the ISS, and wealthy tourists around the Moon.

Hansen said he's very excited about the move towards commercializing space travel. "What's really important is that the cost (of space travel) is going down," Hansen said. And that means more people could be travelling to space in coming years.

As for Fulford, her dream mission is to go to Mars.

"To be able to make those first discoveries, first footprints, have that new technology, would just be an incredible adventure."

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