Have you wondered when Canada’s very first astronauts were selected? This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first-ever team of Canadian astronauts, so we’re looking back at who the first Canadian astronauts were, how they were chosen, and the legacy they left for future astronauts in Canada.

History of the Canadian Astronaut Corps

Canadian Collaboration With NASA

Canada’s collaboration with NASA began in the 1950s when the first Canadian satellite was launched. However, the participation of Canadians in space flight was prompted due to the success of the famous Canadarm, which was developed in the 1970s. This robotic arm designed to unload the space shuttle’s payload bay during missions was launched on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. Thanks to its excellent performance in space, in 1982 NASA invited the participation of a Canadian in an upcoming space mission.

Who Were the First Canadian Astronauts?

When the call for astronauts went out in 1983, 4000 people across Canada responded. Qualified candidates were required to have an exceptional academic background (in science, engineering, or medicine) as well as strong communication skills, professional experience, and excellent physical health.

After making it through a rigorous hiring process, the first six Canadian astronauts were announced on December 5th, 1983:

  • Marc Garneau

Marc became a household name by holding the distinction of being the first Canadian in space in 1984. He has since completed three space flights and logged over 677 hours in space. Hailing from Quebec City, Marc holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and served in the Canadian Navy before becoming an astronaut.

  • Roberta Bondar

As the first Canadian woman to fly in space and the only female member of the original six-astronaut team, Roberta became an inspiring role model for girls across Canada. She grew up in Ontario and earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology as well as a medical degree specializing in neurology. Her space mission was on Discovery in 1992, when she performed experiments related to the impact of microgravity on blood flow, among others.

  • Steve MacLean

Steve is a laser physicist who flew onboard the space shuttle Columbia as a Payload Specialist in 1992 to perform experiments including an evaluation of the Space Vision System. He went to space for a second time for Mission STS-115 on the space shuttle Atlantis, when he became the first Canadian to operate Canadarm2 in space and the second Canadian to walk in space. Steve served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2008 to 2013.

  • Robert Thirsk

Bob is a mechanical engineer and medical doctor from British Columbia who was the first Canadian to live on the International Space Station in 2009. Over 188 days in space, he and his crewmates performed research, complex robotic operations, and repair work. This was his second time in space, having flown for 17 days aboard Columbia in 1996 as part of the Life and Microgravity Spacelab mission.

  • Bjarni Tryggvason

Bjarni was a pilot originally from Iceland who studied engineering physics in British Columbia and Ontario. Over the course of his academic career, he published more than 50 papers and held three patents. He flew as a payload specialist aboard Discovery in 1997 to perform fluid science experiments.

  • Ken Money

Ken was from Ontario and held a Ph.D. in Physiology as well as being an accomplished athlete who represented Canada in the men’s high jump competition at the 1956 Summer Olympics. He was a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force and made significant contributions to knowledge of the inner ear, motion sickness, pilot disorientation, biological effects of spaceflight, and more. He is the only one of the original six Canadian astronauts to never go to space.

The Pool of Canadian Astronauts Grows

The first six astronauts were originally recruited under the National Research Council of Canada and eventually transferred to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) when it was established in 1989. The second recruitment for astronaut training was done in 1992, which led to the selection of Chris Hadfield, Mike McKay, Julie Payette, and Dave Williams.

A third recruitment campaign in 2008 welcomed David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, who is currently on the flight crew of the planned Artemis 2 lunar flyby mission. The fourth and most recent astronaut recruitment campaign was in 2016 when the CSA selected Jenni Sidey-Gibbons and Joshua Kutryk to the roster of Canadian astronauts.

When the next call for astronaut recruitment goes out, will you or someone you know apply? One way to prepare is to learn as much as possible about space flight and science. Plan your next visit to the Space Centre to spark your curiosity and learn more about what it’s like to have a career in space science!

Canadian Astronauts
Ken Money, Marc Garneau, Steve MacLean, Bjarni Tryggvason, Robert Thirsk and Roberta Bondar. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

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