Students star-struck by Canadian space traveller

·2 min read

Astronaut Joshua Kutryk touched down in the gym at Christ the King School this week — not via a spacecraft, but rather a massive video screen.

The St. Vital school welcomed Kutryk, who was hired by the Canadian Space Agency in 2016, as a virtual guest speaker for a 45-minute presentation about his career Wednesday.

He answered questions about his profession, including what he is most looking forward to when he gets assigned a mission to outer space.

“The view back,” said Kutryk, during the videocall broadcast into classrooms of wide-eyed students. “You see nothing but Earth in the void blackness of space, everything that’s ever been human on Earth. That’s when you probably realize, more than anything, how important it is to protect it.”

Middle-schoolers won the visit, which was scheduled for the spring and was postponed because of COVID-19, through the Canadian Space Agency’s Junior Astronauts program.

Teacher Teresa Edwards’ 2019-20 class of sixth graders was selected, after completing two science projects.

They first compared the temperature, humidity and CO2 levels in their classroom to those in the International Space Station. The second project involved participating in a Mars rover simulation during which students communicated with a pretend operator.

Given recent announcements about NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars last week, and the Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024, Edwards said students are extra keen to learn about planetary exploration.

“I hope it inspires them to pursue their dreams, whether they be in science or math or engineering or perhaps in other areas, and to stretch their limits,” she said about Kutryk’s visit.

Edwards added she learned something new Wednesday: astronaut trainees must go underground for several weeks to simulate the experience of being cut off from the outside world.

That was among the anecdotes Kutryk, who is from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., shared about his training.

“Trying to be an astronaut is really a lifelong endeavour,” he said, speaking from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Kutryk’s resume includes four degrees and experience as a test and fighter pilot, engineer and lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

He became a certified astronaut following two and a half years of intensive training, including exercises underwater and in jets to mimic the outer space environment.

Mo Ogunbodede said she was shocked by how long it took. “The fact they have to go underwater for a long time, that surprised me too,” Mo said.

Even though she is not a confident swimmer, the 12-year-old said she isn’t discouraged from pursuing a career in astronomy; Mo simply knows what she’s up against now.

Before signing off Wednesday, Kutryk had a simple message for students: “Dream big!”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press