Seeking Explorers for the Next Generation of Space Travel

If you went to school in the 1970s and early 80’s, your education on space travel contained more mystery and wonder then it did scientific fact. It was a combination of the limited knowledge humanity had about our universe and what we saw on Star Trek.

Since that time our knowledge of space has grown almost beyond human comprehension. The amount of galaxies, suns, planets (both inhabitable and potentially livable), black holes, and other treasure troves that now exist to ushave changed the very nature our existence. Where we once criticized the idea of life on other planets, it now seems likely life exists somewhere else out there.

At one time, the United States and the USSR were the two world leaders in space travel, sending astronauts and cosmonauts to different places in some kind of galactic-sized pissing contest. Now many countries—and companies—have been to space in one way or another and China has joined the ranks of having independent manned spacecraft as well.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX sent the first privately owned spacecraft to the International Space Station, landed a Falcon 9 rocket, won a multi-billion-dollar contract from NASA, and plans to put a man on Mars. SpaceX launched just five years ago.

There’s also Blue Origin. Founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is an equally ambitious startup in the fascinating space market, and its creator recently won the coveted Heinlein Prize “for his vision and leadership in commercial space activities that have led to historic firsts and reusability in the commercial spaceflight industry.” And Blue Origin this year reached a commercial agreement to develop the BE-4 engine, which could be used to power the next generation of U.S. space launch vehicles.

So what is the future of space travel? Will we colonize Mars and live it up on the Red Planet? Will some distant alien finally visit and give us some kind of intergalactic bus pass so our humble species can experience the universe in all its wonder? Perhaps we should start with baby steps.

Such as: the Canadian Space Agency has just made a big announcement that they are looking to recruit some new astronauts.

“We’re looking for a new generation of space explorers, so we’re opening a campaign to recruit two new Canadian astronauts,” says Gilles Leclerc, the Director General of Space Exploration for the CSA in an interview with Techvibes. “These are really important milestones not only in the life of the space program but also showing the world that Canada is committed and engaged in the future of space exploration.”

If you are looking to be Canada’s new recruit, the qualifications for such a role have not changed much over the years, you still need a strong background in science and engineering—”We’re looking at a background in science, technology, medical, life sciences and so on.”

SpaceX’s CRS-6 Falcon 9 in a hangar.

Interestingly enough, the amount of projects that are currently underway to get our species as far and as wide as we can in the universe, is very plentiful. Unlike the old days with government agencies being the only ones who could afford to go into space (not to mention the only ones allowed to at the time), now space travel is a combination of the public and private sectors working together for the greater good of human curiosity.

“Right now the only missions we have until the early 2020’s is to the International Space Station,” Leclerc notes.

Leclerc says that what the CSA does after their missions to the International Space Station is currently up for debate, but that is why they are training new recruits now. “Training to become an astronaut takes at least five years, so it puts us within our recruitment [time] for new astronauts being available around 2022 or 2023.”

Although at one time, the US and Russia were both regular visitors to space, due to various government funding changes and other bureaucratic red tape, at the moment the Russians are the only government launching. “Right now the only country that has the capability to launch people in orbit is Russia. The Americans are developing a commercial business, NASA is giving contracts to Boeing and to SpaceX, to develop vehicles that will carry crews to a space station. These vehicles will be ready in 2 or 3 years.”

When asked about the current importance of the space station to these governments and why we keep going back there as opposed to the science-fictionesque trips to Mars and beyond, the reason is we are conducting major experiments on the station to see how humans adapt to space so they can visit these places in the future.

“Looking at the effects of long duration flight on the human body is really important if we are to take the next steps and send humans to Mars,” says Leclerc.

Leclerc says that NASA has a program on now called “Journey to Mars,” where the ultimate goal is to get a manned space flight to the Red Planet and get them home. The travel time to Mars takes more than a year from Earth each way.

It’s also important in the eyes of the CSA to not discount going back to the moon as there seem to be some great benefits to that: “First of all there is always the science. We know a lot about the geology of the moon but it’s the closest celestial body next to Earth and we still have a lot to learn. There are resources on the moon that can be exploited and we can put observatories on the moon.”

Leclerc says that because the moon has very little atmosphere, we can put giant telescopes there and observe the universe at a much greater capacity than the current Hubble Space Telescope.

Another upcoming mega-trend in space travel will of course be tourism. “In a few years time you’ll have space tourists going on short orbital hops with Virgin Galactic and other companies. The spacecraft are being developed now so it’s only a question of four or five years. In our lifetime you’ll have space tourists going to space, you’ll have government astronauts and you’ll have scientists also flying to space.”

Leclerc also sees the development of these private entities as a wonderful thing for space travel. “They are exactly the shape of things to come, because NASA intentionally after the shuttle program decided to leave lower-Earth orbit to the private sector so they can focus on going further into space.”

Wherever this long journey takes us, it is very promising to see the private and public sector working together for the greater good of humanity. Even if those intentions are sprinkled with a little bit of the usual incentives such as monetary gain or naming a new frozen planet ‘Canada 2.0’, the point is we will get there if we work together.