Once an astronaut, always an astronaut

Although I retired as an astronaut several years ago, I remain engaged with the Canadian Space Agency. Human spaceflight is my passion and I continue to do whatever I can to advance Canada’s role in space exploration. I suppose ‘once an astronaut, always an astronaut’.

I spent two days in Houston last week participating in a Canadian Space Agency project entitled ‘Occupational Fitness for Astronauts’. Natalie Hirsch is the CSA project lead. Natalie was the exercise coach who supervised my strength and conditioning training before, during and after my last space mission. She knows a lot about occupational fitness.

Natalie Hirsch (CSA Project Officer) and her ‘Essential Task Focus Group’: me, David Saint-Jacques and Chris Hadfield

Natalie Hirsch (CSA Project Officer) and her ‘Essential Task Focus Group’: me, David Saint-Jacques and Chris Hadfield

Natalie invited current astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques as well as former astronauts Chris Hadfield and me to participate in the study. She called us her ‘Essential Task Focus Group’. (Ha! – I feel so important.)

The objective of Natalie’s project is to develop fitness assessments and recommendations that will enhance the capacity for astronauts to effectively and safely perform critical and demanding tasks. The term ‘occupational fitness’ certainly refers to the physical capacity of astronauts to do our jobs, but applies equally to our mental and psychological capacities.

The assessments that result from the Occupational Fitness for Astronauts study will be applied in the future to astronaut recruitment, training and missions. Coincidentally, while we were in Houston last week, the CSA announced the launch of a new astronaut recruitment campaign. The fitness assessments could therefore be used by the CSA to develop minimum fitness standards for our new astronauts. They could also be used to determine what are acceptable physical capacity losses due to spaceflight deconditioning and when astronauts can return to active duty following spaceflight.

The first task for my astronaut colleagues and me was to identify the ‘essential’ tasks of the astronaut occupation. The term ‘essential’ is defined as anything that could impact the success of the mission, the integrity of our spacecraft or the safety of the crew. Of course, we astronauts argued that everything we do is essential. Nevertheless, our painful first job was to review a comprehensive list of 300 tasks that describe the roles and responsibilities of astronauts, and pare it down to a short list of what we deemed to be the most critical and particularly challenging tasks. Following much discussion and wordsmithing, we whittled the list down to 30 essential tasks.

During the second day of the activity, we provided detailed descriptions of scenarios that could be used as examples for each essential task. The intent of the scenarios (one scenario per task) was to characterize each task. For example, during the first day of the activity, we deemed ’identify, prioritize and respond to International Space Station malfunctions and emergencies’ to be an essential task. While there are many malfunctions and emergency situations that could occur aboard the ISS, we chose a crew’s response to a rapid station depressurization and described it in great detail to illustrate the kind of competencies that are required to deal with onboard emergencies.

Natalie’s Occupational Fitness for Astronauts activity is being conducted in collaboration with the Human Performance Research Team of the Department of National Defence. Our DND colleagues have previously used their expertise to update occupational fitness standards for the Canadian Forces, the RCMP and other agencies.

It was gratifying to work together last week with Jeremy, David and Chris. Our discussions were rich and we fed off of each other. The outcome of our activity may not be ideal (i.e. it is a bit artificial to characterize the astronaut job in a handful of task statements) but it will be of use by the CSA in its pursuit of enhanced astronaut safety and productivity. I’m glad that Natalie Hirsch and the CSA continue to offer opportunities for me to serve.

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