Jenni Sidey-Gibbons is flying high, diving deep and learning Russian. Here’s what astronaut training is really like
A year ago today, Jenni Sidey-Gibbons walked across a stage on Parliament Hill and was introduced as one of Canada’s two newest astronauts.
The 29-year-old from Calgary was only the third female candidate ever to be named to the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut program, and she had some big shoes to fill. The last woman who did the job is now Canada’s governor general, after all.
WATCH: Introducing Canada’s newest astronauts, Jenni Sidey and Joshua Kutryk
Since July 2017, Sidey-Gibbons has spent much of her time at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where the first year of training has taken her high above the clouds, deep underwater and even into the wilderness. In spite of a hectic schedule, she managed to carve out some time this week to chat with Global News.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Global News: Let’s start off with an easy one. Did you always want to be an astronaut?
Jenni Sidey-Gibbons: It was definitely something that I was interested in when I was really young. I think it was probably the first thing that I sort of latched on to, because it’s such a visible and exciting career that you dream about when you’re little.
And then I got into other sorts of science. I wanted to be a geologist for a long time, so that sort of dovetailed with space exploration because I wanted to look for rocks on other planets.
That eventually progressed to engineering … combustion science, (and) I wanted to teach. I didn’t really have any aspirations to go back to the idea of space exploration, until the call for the astronaut campaign came out.
GN: Do you remember where you were when the CSA called and told you that you had been selected?
JSG: I remember exactly where I was. I was living in England at the time, I was sitting in my office at Cambridge (University) and it was quite late at night with the time change. I had stayed later than I had normally planned for that day, and I was with my then-fiancé.
We were just kind of relaxing and reflecting on what the process had been, and how special it had been. We didn’t know what to expect, so it was a pretty exciting phone call to get.
GN: Tell me about your training since then, and what you’ve enjoyed most.
JSG: My time has been split between a few different areas that we’ve been training for, like space flight readiness. One big area that we’ve focused on is flying the T-38 jet. It’s actually an air force trainer, and that really prepares you to think quickly and make decisions in a crew of two.
I’ve also spent time preparing for all the systems that I might encounter in a space station. The systems that would keep you alive, give you fresh water, give you oxygen, protect you from radiation. All [of] these are engineering systems, which have been developed to keep people alive in a hostile environment.
The other component has been Russian. We learn Russian as part of our program because it’s such an international partnership [on the International Space Station] and we pair very closely with Russia.
We learn the language so that we can communicate, if we want, in a Russian system. It’s a difficult language to learn.
GN: Speaking of difficult, what’s been the biggest challenge for you since last July?
JSG: I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about the space suit. How to manipulate the suit, and what kind of tasks we would do when going on a spacewalk.
That’s something that you practice in a very, very deep pool, and that’s incredibly challenging. It’s not really a suit. I mean, you’re really more manipulating a little spacecraft that just has you in it. And it takes a lot of getting used to. It’s demanding, especially on your arms. You have to think very carefully how you’re going to get to a certain spot inside what we call the ‘work envelope.’
GN: You’re just the third woman to be recruited to Canada’s astronaut program. The others were Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette. They’ve talked about some of the challenges and the fights for acceptance they faced being surrounded by so many men. Is that something you still feel today?
JSG: I think it’s actually come a long way. I’ve worked in a male-dominated field since I started my engineering degree, so that’s definitely not new for me. But, actually, this is the place where I’ve worked with the most women; women who’ve been very respected in this role.
I don’t doubt that that is in large part because of the work that Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette put in. They did a lot to pave the way for me. I see that every day.
There are also many American female astronauts who’ve been incredibly successful and highly respected. There are obviously still challenges, as there are in any (workplaces) where the balance isn’t quite even. But it has come a long way, and all the men I’ve encountered have been very respectful and encouraging.
GN: That must make you feel pretty optimistic. Especially given your work with young women and girls in STEM fields.
JSG: Yeah, it’s wonderful. I mean, I didn’t know what to expect coming in. I’d heard good things, but it was fantastic to actually see that progress so tangibly and experience it in my own classes.
It gives me something to take back to groups of Canadians that I speak with, to say ‘this has gotten a lot better.’
GN: Maclean’s Magazine recently interviewed another Canadian astronaut, David Saint-Jacques, and asked him about what he thought of the status of space science right now. He said humanity is at a real tipping point, in particular as we look to Mars. What do you see happening in the coming years?
JSG: I agree with David. He said we’re kind of in this new era for space science, and I think that’s absolutely correct.
There was this turning point [decades ago] and a large effort that a lot of nations put in. The space-race itself, and that extended all the way into the shuttle program. There haven’t been as many leaps and bounds in terms of progress [more recently], but I think that’s changing, especially as we develop new space systems to fly on and we’re looking further afield.
I think there’s still lots and lots of work to be done. We really have to share with people how important space exploration is, and how much it helps life here on Earth.
We’re going to learn a lot in the next couple of decades.
GN: You’ve said that your motto is “fortune favours the brave.” What about that line speaks to you?
JSG: It’s actually an important line for my family. I remember my mom talking to me about that; just that if you don’t give anything a shot, you’ll never really know what you can do.
So that was something that was particularly important for me during the recruitment campaign, because I was lumped in with all these incredible Canadians doing very challenging tests and my expectation was, at the beginning, almost nothing. It really was a lot of bravery, and confidence and resilience. Just grit.
GN: The question on everyone’s mind – and I’m sure yours – is when you might actually be assigned to a space mission. Do you have any sense of the timeline on that?
JSG: I don’t, actually! Because things are changing so quickly it’s really anyone’s guess what’s going to happen in the next decade or so — five to 10 years. We really don’t know what space systems we’ll have to fly on, what launch systems, what sort of space stations we’ll have, and what Canada’s role will be.
But for the time being, I have so much to learn. I’m looking forward to doing all that training and just seeing where space flight and space travel progresses in the next little while. It’s very exciting. And I’m looking forward to coming back to Canada often to share that with people.
GN: Thanks so much for talking to us.
JSG: Thank you!
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