Dreaming of the stars Thomas Karakolis, a McMaster alumnus, is one of the 72 remaining Canadians being considered by the Canadian Space Agency to become an astronaut aboard the International Space Station

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Space travel began with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first satellite. The first human to orbit the Earth was Russian, but the Americans made it to the moon first. Since then, Russia and North America have dominated space travel. The Canadian Space Agency was first established in 1989, with its first major contribution being Canadarm, a robotic arm capable of satellite manipulation. The success of Canadarm prompted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to work with the CSA to train Canadian astronauts and send them to space. Several years later, Chris Hadfield became a household name when he became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station. Since then, the CSA has started to rely on Russian capsules to get them to low-earth orbit, limiting the number of trips that Canadian astronauts can make and therefore limiting the need for astronauts. At the moment, the CSA only has two active astronauts, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen. This is the smallest that the Canadian astronaut corps has ever been.

Last year the CSA put out a job posting for two more astronauts. Now, the remaining candidates will undergo a series of selection events geared at determining their ability to work in a team and cope with physical and mental stress. The final two will be relocated to Houston, Texas in August of 2017 to begin their official training as astronauts for the CSA. The recruitment campaign will reinforce Canadian contribution to the exploration of the new frontier. The rigorous selection criteria means that the CSA has their pick among the most qualified Canadians, and the two who will be chosen to represent the country on a global scale.

Among those who applied was Thomas Karakolis. He is one of 72 remaining Canadians, and two McMaster alumni, who are vying for one of two positions.

Self-Sufficiency

Karakolis completed his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and pursued a master’s degree under the supervision of Greg Whol looking at biomechanics and bone adaptation to mechanical loading. After finishing two degrees at McMaster, Karakolis moved to Waterloo to complete a PhD in applied health sciences in the department of kinesiology.

Portrait of Thomas Karakolis, PhD

Portrait of Thomas Karakolis, PhD

Karakolis credits much of his education at McMaster for the fact that he has made it this far into the selection process.

“It is tough to tell exactly what the CSA is looking for. I think it is someone who has a diverse background,” said Karakolis.

The CSA website says that among the key factors for consideration is excellent health, a university education in science, engineering or medicine and extensive knowledge and experience. The wide breadth of requirements for becoming an astronaut ensures that those who are sent to space are capable of dealing with a multitude of problems thrown their way.

“There are only a few astronauts on the International Space Station so they have to be the scientists conducting scientific experimentation on animals, on plants, on themselves. But they also have to be people that maintain the space station so they have to be mechanics, plumbers, and electricians that take care of the space station,” said Karakolis. Three people typically inhabit the ISS at a time. They alone are responsible for the integrity of the orbiting structure and the discoveries that come from its use. If something breaks, they are the ones to fix it. The astronauts on the ISS also do any unloading and reloading of re-supply vehicles and equipment maintenance. Their purpose in space is to run experiments geared at understanding more about the biological and physical world, the universe and how being in space affects the human body.

“The ultimate goal of science is discovery and to progress our knowledge as a civilization and a species of not only ourselves but the world around us.”
Thomas Karakolis
Canadian Space Agency applicant

Karakolis hopes that his background in biomechanics and experience with experimentation makes him a good fit to contribute to one of the goals of space travel: discovery. “The ultimate goal of science is discovery and to progress our knowledge as a civilization and a species of not only ourselves but the world around us,” said Karakolis.

He is currently working as a defence scientist with Defence Research and Development Canada, an agency of the Department of National Defence. His research focuses on human performance and injury prevention in members of the Canadian Armed Forces. His educational background allows him to apply biomechanics to physiological functioning.

“Astronauts are scientists in space and a lot of the experimentation they do is on themselves as well as their crewmates,” said Karakolis.

Independence Day

According to Karakolis, the current most exciting occurrence in space travel is the progress NASA has made in gaining the independence to send astronauts to space themselves. Currently, Canadian and American astronauts rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to take them to the ISS, at the price of $80 million per person. This means that the CSA currently has only one way to get to space, via the Soyuz, and only one destination, the ISS. Taken together, the CSA only gets a space flight on average of once every four to five years. Up until now, the CSA has not had a need for more than two active astronauts.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program asked companies to design the next generation of space systems that will carry astronauts into low-Earth orbit. NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing a contract to complete the design of their capsules that will carry astronauts to the ISS. While the first manned test flights were set for 2018, safety delays and challenges have set the progress back and NASA will likely not certify the capsules until much later. Karakolis does believe that the CSA will be playing a role in the development of these capsules, although the best way to contribute has yet to be decided.

“The anticipation is with these new vehicles, and missions, there will be more frequent opportunities for the CSA to send Canadian astronauts to space in the near future,” said Karakolis. These up and coming opportunities for space travel lead the CSA to launch the 2016 astronaut recruitment campaign.

Karakolis believes that it is integral that Canada reinforces its contribution to space travel in order to continue giving our astronauts access to the sky. The CSA’s close relationship with NASA means that a NASA victory is a victory the CSA as well.

“Right now, we don’t have a capability to get Canadians to space on our own, so we need to deal with access through either the Russian technology or the new American technology so I think instead of… just buying tickets essentially, contributing makes us more a part of the journey, the adventure, the discovery,” said Karakolis.

“Astronauts are scientists in space and a lot of the experimentation they do is on themselves as well as their climates.”
Thomas Karakolis
Canadian Space Agency applicant 

The Right Timing

Karakolis says that he always wanted to be an astronaut. “I don’t think I am unique in that way; a lot of kids dream about being astronauts,” he said.

While he encourages those who dream of space travel to pursue their dreams, it is not a career that you can bank on.

“One thing that I was never quite sure of was if I would get an opportunity as good as the opportunity I have now,” he said. “It is one of those things that you dream about and you hope for but you can never really plan on being an astronaut because there are so few opportunities and some of it has to do with just being able to go for it when they do make a call like they did last year.”

The last time the CSA made a job posting for astronauts was in 2008. The 2016 recruitment campaign was the fourth ever for the CSA. The yearlong selection process is not only gruelling and stressful, but also has a low success rate; from the thousands of initial applicants, only two are going to be chosen this year. At a rate of about two new Canadians becoming astronauts every 10 years, there is an element of luck that plays into the job. The right opportunity has to present itself at the right time, when the person is ready. Despite this, Karakolis still encourages those who look to the sky to work hard and look out for opportunities to apply.

The candidates will find out who is chosen before Aug. 2017. After getting chosen, the two astronauts will be trained in Houston, Texas at the Johnson Space Centre for about two years. Once on the ISS, the Canadian astronaut will be working with the Americans and Russians and potentially astronauts from another space agency such as Europe or Japan.

Karakolis hopes to be the newest Canadian to explore the new frontier. “It is really the idea of being able to explore, being on the cutting edge of human discovery and at the same time being able to inspire people and to encourage people to pursue their dreams,” said Karakolis. For the CSA, the 2017 recruitment campaign will help Canadian space travel pick up speed once again.

 

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