Canadian Space Agency narrows astronaut candidates down to 17

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Canada's 2 newest astronauts to be announced at Parliament Hill festivities

Canada's 2 newest astronauts to be announced at Parliament Hill festivities

They are doctors, they are engineers, they are scientists — and they are the next group of Canadians who may one day find themselves staring down on Earth from the International Space Station.

On Monday, the Canadian Space Agency together with Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, announced the newest 17 astronaut candidates, the last remaining from 3,772 applicants. The list will be narrowed down this summer to the final two.

These Canadians have undergone rigorous physical and mental testing in Quebec and Halifax. The tests are designed to leave them exhausted and frustrated and to see how they performed under unusually difficult conditions.

Vanessa Fulford, originally from Fort McMurray, Alta., was one of the latest candidates to make the cut.

"It was a difficult process, but something I've wanted to do all my life," she told CBC News. 

Fulford studied space science as well as flight test engineering before working as an aerospace engineer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Today she is flight test engineer, and says her experience there helped her prepare for her training as an astronaut.

"I work in a team, under stressful circumstances," she said. "You're used to working as a team and communicating effectively and also working in the close quarters of an aircraft. So it's something that I do in my everyday job."

As a child, Fulford always had an avid interest in science. But her goal to become an astronaut was ignited during a family trip to Florida where she watched a night launch of the space shuttle Endeavour. 

"Just watching that, I'd never had a feeling like that before…watching those astronauts blast off into the most amazing adventure. So from then on I knew that's what I wanted to be."

As for being one of five female astronaut candidates, Fulford said she's happy, but had never been deterred from applying to traditionally male-dominated careers in the first place.

"In my experience so far, in both the military and this new process, is that I'm treated as a person…I'm a flight test engineer, I'm an astronaut candidate. I'm looked at for my qualities, my skills and not my gender."

Fulford ultimately hopes to inspire future generations and also young girls who may not look to careers in science. And, of course, she has her sights set on something big.

"I could get on a mission to Mars," she said. "I think that would be the ultimate exploration."

Jesse Zroback, who works as a doctor in Marathon, Ont., was also one of the final candidates. 

"It has been a life-changing experience," he said. 

Zroback said the training was exhausting: they had limited sleep, tested with military trainers and took part in activity after activity for 14 hours straight. 

"They do a really good job of layering the different stress factors to see how you'll be able to perform," he said. But the most challenging part for him was the unknown. 

"In Halifax, they'd give you an Arctic dry suit," he said. "So you knew they could throw anything your way, whether it's jumping in a wave pool that's simulating a storm in the ocean, or the next thing they could do is some hand-eye co-ordination test, or the next could be some problem-solving test that you have to write on paper. So you just don't know what's coming next."

Words of advice

While training for the as-yet-unannounced future mission to space, astronaut Jeremy Hansen has been also been working closely with the recruitment program. It brings back some memories of his own recruitment process, and the challenges he faced.

"The flood scenarios, the fire scenarios — I mean, it was exhausting," he told CBC News. "And your body was just saying, 'I'm done.' But you keep on going."

As for words of advice to the newest shortlisted candidates, Hansen said they should be proud of what they've accomplished.

"You've proven yourselves; you're great examples," he said. "We know you're not perfect…​so just be yourself."

To see a complete list of finalists, visit the Canadian Space Agency's website.