Major Jeremy Hansen - Thoughts on Being an Astronaut

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Official photo of Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Jeremy Hansen

Credit: CSA

Major Jeremy Hansen – Thoughts on Being an Astronaut

 

“We're meant to explore. We're driven to understand more about where we are, who we are and what we're doing here.”

 

Major Hansen is a Canadian Space Agency Astronaut and CF-18 pilot. Dancing Owl spoke to him about the freedom and challenges of flying, various types of astronaut training (psychological training – isn’t that cool?) and the importance of space exploration.

 

What inspired you to become an astronaut?

I read an article in the encyclopaedia about Neil Armstrong when I was quite young, in elementary school. There was a picture of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon and I thought that was pretty amazing. I would go outside and look at the moon in the night sky and I realized that human beings had walked right there, right where I was looking. As a young child, that really opened up what was possible for me.

 

What path did you take to becoming an astronaut?

Well, I received some advice along the way. I was very motivated to fly in space. I thought that one day I might potentially be able to do so but I didn't really know how. As I got older and I experienced more opportunities, I spoke with astronauts and I realized that my chances of flying in space were not so good. So I designed a life for myself that I was going to be passionate about whether I flew in space or not. It was important for me to understand that the success and happiness of my life wasn't going to be based on whether I flew in space, that I was going to choose things to do in my life that which I already loved to do anyway. And if that led me to flying in space then that would be an amazing opportunity. And if it led me somewhere else, hopefully that would be another amazing opportunity. So, since I was passionate about aviation as well as space, I joined the military.

And before that, I guess I really got started in the Air Cadet program. At the age of 12, my father pulled me aside one day and said, “Hey, I heard about this Air Cadet program.” He knew that I was interested in flying and he said that they'll teach you to fly airplanes for free. I thought that was pretty important since we didn't have a lot of money. I grew up on a farm. I wasn't able to fly and couldn't afford flying. So I joined the Air Cadets. By the age of 16, I had a glider pilot license. By the age of 17, I received a private pilot license with the Cadet program. And the Cadets gave me more than that. It gave me a great start to life. It gave me leadership experience and really boosted my confidence. It prepared me for some of the challenges that were lying ahead.

 

So that's a program that teens should definitely look into?

Yes! But the Air Cadet program is just one youth program of course. There are many youth programs out there that offer the same benefits. I really enjoyed the Air Cadet program because of the aviation aspect. But there's Army Cadets, Sea Cadets, and there's lots of other opportunities at schools. But I definitely think that what's important is that you find something that you like to do.

 

What did you study in university?

I joined the military and went to the Royal Military College. I went to Saint-Jean in Quebec for a year and then the university in Kingston for four years. I was interested in science and engineering, and I was looking at what degree programs I was going to take.

I saw the space science program and I thought, “Wow that's really neat!” But it wasn't an engineering degree. It was a physics degree and I thought that might affect my future opportunities to do test pilot school. I was concerned about that, and about whether it would be good or bad for being selected as an astronaut. I ran into Chris Hadfield in university and I asked him, “What would be the impact of my taking a space science degree? Is it going to close any doors?” He encouraged me to follow the degree path that I found most interesting. He said that would be the most important factor to base my decision on. That was good advice. So I studied space science. It doesn't really matter what program you take as long as you've done something to challenge yourself and you've learned how to learn. That's one of the most important aspects that you can obtain from university.

 

So then you became a CF-18 pilot?

That's right. I started my aviation career with the Air Force after military college. I started flying CF-18s and I still fly the CF-18 with the Royal Canadian Air Force today.

 

Jeremy Hansen Flight Training Highres

Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques in a training flight in Cold Lake, Alberta

Credit: Private Laura Brophy, Canadian Forces

 

What does it feel like to fly, I'm curious?

[laughs] Well, I find flying is an amazing experience with respect to freedom and challenge. You get to see some really amazingly beautiful places around our planet from the cockpit of a fighter jet. I've also been extraordinarily challenged in the cockpit of a fighter jet with emergency situations, regular combat training and just day-to-day flying of the airplane. So it's something that I absolutely love to do and I get a lot of benefit from it.

 

What's your favourite part of your job now?

I still really enjoy the challenge of flying. But there are some really fascinating things I get to do as an astronaut now that I wasn't able to do as a fighter pilot before. And one of them is the spacewalk training. I really enjoy that because it is another field that is really challenging. You do the training in the pool to simulate zero gravity. The spacesuit weighs over 300 pounds so learning how to do work in it, and to simulate repairing the space station, is both entertaining and very challenging at the same time. Working in the spacesuit is very tough because you're basically in this pressurized balloon that's going to keep you alive in space. Every time you try to move that balloon, to bend your arms or bend your fingers to grab an object, you're fighting against the resistance of the balloon. And that's not so bad at first. But once you've been in the suit for four or five, six hours, during the day working, it becomes very physically demanding!

 

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Jeremy Hansen at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

Credit: NASA

 

That's very cool.

And also it is mentally challenging, just keeping track of all of the little tasks that need to be done to keep everyone safe. So spacewalk training is also one of the highlights of astronaut training. I've also done quite a bit of geology training. I had no interest in it before but I find it absolutely fascinating now. We're constantly preparing to send people beyond the low earth orbit again, and maybe back to the moon, asteroids and Mars. So geology is going to be part of the science we do and because of that astronauts have the opportunity to take part in geology training and to go on geology expeditions.

 

What are the expeditions like?

Well, they're pretty cool. This summer, I went on a really neat one. I joined Professor Gordon Osinski from the University of Western Ontario and four of his students. The six of us went up to Victoria Island, which is one of the large islands in the arctic. People had found some evidence of what looked like a meteor crater and so we went up to explore it. We got dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the arctic by a small twin engine airplane. They just dropped us there … there's no runway, no people, no anything, no infrastructure. And then they came back twelve days later to pick us up. So it was really neat to be in the middle of nowhere all by yourself exploring a meteor crater that turned out to be close to 25 km in diameter. Pretty neat!

 

So you get survival training as well?

Yes, I've done quite a bit of survival training with the Air Force and even a little bit as part of our astronaut training. We all did survival training together.

 

Are there any other aspects to astronaut training?

Well yes, lots of other aspects… You're probably familiar with Canadarm? Of course, we have to learn to operate the robotics that are on the space station, which was fun! And since you're living on board the space station, you have to learn all of its systems: how the space station works and how to repair it when something goes wrong. We have lots of help on the ground to get us through that and we expect to have communications but you never know. One day, there could be a really bad problem and the astronauts may be left to deal with everything on their own with no help from the ground. So there's quite a bit of training on space station systems.

 

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Jeremy Hansen familiarizing himself with the robotics.

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

 

I read that there's psychological training. How does that work?

[laughs] Well, you know, it is really hard to train someone psychologically. So we try to put our astronauts in challenging situations just to give them some more exposure to getting to know themselves, how they react in stressful situations and how they relate to other people in those situations.

So, I'll give you one example. We went on something we call a National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, expedition. It is really just a conduit for us to put a group of astronauts out in the wild under somewhat more stressful physical conditions where their decisions matter. We did a ten day backpacking trip through canyons in Utah. On a daily basis, as a group, you're required to make decisions about which route you're going to take. We weren't following any trails. We just had some goals of where we wanted to get to, but how we got there was up to us. We had to make decisions about whether we would take longer routes that were safer or shorter routes with more vertical challenges like climbing or repelling. That's just one example of preparing yourself psychologically to fly in space. After all, in space, you are really going to be trapped in a tin can with probably five other people for six months, so the psychological aspect becomes really important. And one of the really important things is that you know how to respect others, how to take care of other people and basically how to play nice in the sandbox.

 

Well, that sounds like a fascinating experience.

It was.

 

Why is space exploration important?

There are some obvious results that we see back here on earth when we invest money in space exploration. For instance, some of the items designed for the space program get used on planet earth. As well, going to space allows us to conduct valuable research. For example, osteoporosis affects a lot of people. Here on earth, an elderly person will lose a certain amount of bone mass over two years but an astronaut may lose that some bone mass in as little as one month. We're learning a lot about bone loss in space because it affects astronauts at a more rapid rate than it affects humans.

Those are some of the more obvious reasons. But I think that there's one reason for exploring outer space that's even more important than any other, and that's for the unknown that we will find out there. As the human species, we've always explored, we've always expanded out to see what was over the next horizon or what was under the water. And I think that we're meant to explore, we're driven to understand more about where we are, who we are and what we're doing here. We're seeing some absolutely amazing things when we look out into our universe. The Hubble Space Telescope shows us some pictures that are just absolutely mind-boggling. You can't really grasp the enormity of our universe. And so why wouldn't we venture out and push ourselves to find out what's really out there for humanity?

 

 Canadarm lowres

The Canadarm repairing the Hubble Space telescope.

Credit: NASA

 

One final question. What insights do you have for teens who are interested in becoming astronauts?

Find your passion in life. That's ultimately the most important thing. You need to find out what you love to do and then follow that passion. And you're not necessarily going to follow the path of other people you see around you. You should follow your own individual path. If you look at our planet, we're a global society. We rely on everybody to take care of one another, to support each other. There are immense societies that we have around the globe. So we need everyone to find out what they're good at, what they love to do and to pursue it. So that's the first thing. The second thing is to really take that passion and apply it in a way that makes a contribution back to society.

 

That's exactly what my magazine is trying to encourage people to do as well!

It's a great cause.

 

This was a wonderful interview. Thank you so much!

This transcript has been abridged and edited slightly to improve readability.

 

The following is the Canadian Space Agency’s mandate:

“To promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.”

For more information about the CSA, visit: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/about/mission.asp

For information about careers at the CSA, visit: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/careers.asp