Astronaut selection requires Gideon-like wisdom

One of my favourite Old Testament heroes is Gideon. Gideon was a prominent judge who led the Israelites in several key battles around 1150 BCE. In one story, Gideon recruited 32,000 Israeli volunteers in preparation to fight the Midians. This army, however, was deemed by God to be much too large so Gideon was directed to reduce its size. I’m sure this presented quite the logistical challenge to our hero.

You may recall from this familiar story that one evaluation method used by Gideon was to have the volunteers take a drink at a stream. Those recruits who knelt down on both knees to drink from the stream were disqualified. Those who knelt on one knee and cupped a hand to lap the water were retained as soldiers.

We can speculate on the rationale behind this kind of screening test. In any event, Gideon chose well … the selected 300 soldiers later pulled off a cunning and gutsy operation against the Midian army. You can read more about Gideon’s recruiting methods in chapter 7 of the Book of Judges.

The Canadian Space Agency is currently facing a Gideon-like challenge. It is about to sort through thousands of applications from individuals who wish to become CSA astronauts. I’m not surprised that 4,000 people have applied for the two positions – the highly-qualified individuals who will eventually be selected by the Agency will embark on adventurous and fulfilling careers.

The astronaut role is certainly adventurous and fulfilling, but requires unique knowledge, skills and attitudes

The astronaut role is certainly adventurous and fulfilling, but requires unique knowledge, skills and attitudes

Several people in the past have mentioned to me that they would like to become astronauts. When they do, I can’t help but reflect on some of the superb astronauts who I have been privileged to train and fly with. These role models all have MacGyver-like instincts and skills; they function well in difficult working environments; they are good team players.

The deadline to submit applications to the CSA is fast approaching.

A small army of Agency personnel will then begin the long, laborious task of screening applicants. The process will require substantial resources, novel technologies and the assistance of external experts. The evaluators will review the applicants’ CVs, medical reports and performance evaluations. Computer algorithms and metrics will be utilized.

However, astronaut selection is not a precise science. ‘Astronaut’ is a unique position characterized by complex roles, responsibilities, knowledge, skills and attitudes – it’s unlike any other profession on Earth. It will be impossible to assess applicants solely with objective screening aids. These aids will be necessary but not sufficient for screening.

Subjectivity should also play a role. In my opinion, experience and gut-feeling will be invaluable. When faced with a budding candidate, for instance, two of the many questions that I silently ask myself are:

– Would I enjoy spending six months in space with this person?

– Could I depend on this person to save my life in a contingency situation?

Marc Garneau, Nicole Stott and Koichi Wakata - three (of many) people I would enjoy spending six months in space with and who I could depend on to save my life

Marc Garneau, Nicole Stott and Koichi Wakata – three (of many) people I’d enjoy spending six months in space with and who I know would save my life

The good news is that there is a lot of talent in Canada and many of the finalists in this recruitment campaign will have what it takes to do the job and represent Canada well.

Dr. Geoff Steeves, a University of Victoria physics professor, was a highly-regarded finalist in the 2008/09 astronaut recruitment campaign. He produced a two-part Youtube video describing his experiences as well as some of the tests that were conducted during the various selection stages. I expect that the CSA’s current campaign will be similar to Geoff’s.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Anyway … I wish the Canadian Space Agency Gideon-like wisdom as it begins reviewing the astronaut applications. I do not necessarily encourage drinking water from a stream as part of the evaluation process. However, I look forward to someday meeting over drinks with the chosen pair. They will be incredible people who will lead us on amazing voyages into the solar system.

One thought on “Astronaut selection requires Gideon-like wisdom

  1. Excellent article, Bob, that should be essential reading for the 4000+ hopeful candidates. As a member of the selection team for the last recruitment, you have summed up the task of the evaluators extremely well. Passion tempered with leadership, fellowship, quick thinking, compassion and innate intelligence is how I would sum up the ideal candidate. It is to Canada’s credit, that the country has produced and chosen some of the best of the best in the international astronaut corps, recognized as such by their peers, of which you are one of the shining examples.
    Ad astra.

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