Canada chooses!

Earlier this month, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) unveiled the shortlist of candidates still remaining in contention to be Canada’s next astronaut.

A few months ago, I posted my first blog post. In it, I analysed the profiles of the current pool of ESA and NASA astronauts from the 2009 intake onwards. There were four main outcomes of the analysis conducted.

  1. All astronauts had studied STEM subjects
  2. Engineering as the subject of choice within these STEM options with 62% of astronauts having a background in Engineering
  3. The remaining preference towards astronauts with military backgrounds with more than half being military pilots
  4. 24% of astronauts with advanced degrees in STEM fields

The original analysis only considered 32 astronauts from the most recent selections and was far from being statistically valid (to be fair, considering the population size of current astronauts, this may not be such a bad sample size!) However, with the CSA’s announcement, 70 more potential astronauts have been identified for analysis. I realise that it’s not the same to compare shortlisted candidates and actual members of the astronaut corps, but their underlying skills, qualities, and experiences can’t be too dissimilar otherwise they wouldn’t have made the final cut.

So with the preamble over, let’s get down to the analysis, focussing on the same four points above to see whether they are supported by the new candidates or if trends have changed in the recent years for what makes a desirable astronaut.

1. The importance of STEM

All 70 shortlisted candidates have STEM educational backgrounds. Having checked how this was possible, it appears that it is a prerequisite for selection. So it makes sense as to why STEM appears to be so important!

2. Engineering success

54% of the candidates have some sort of background in Engineering. This is in fact lower than the proportion of astronauts in the corps with this background. However, the fact still remains that if you want to even be selected to potentially become an astronaut, an Engineering background is massively favourable. A reason as to why there are fewer Engineers in the running is outlined in the final point later.

3. Top Guns

The prevalence of military applicants is not as large as what I was expecting given the previous analysis. Whilst most of the current astronaut corps come from a military background, only 20% of the CSA candidates do. And this is including all areas of the military; pilots, engineers, and physicians. Whether this implies Canada holds less of a preference towards military backgrounds remains to be seen. After all, the most memorable (I’m biased since I’ve met him and he’s really nice!) Canadian astronaut Cmdr Chris Hadfield was an ex-fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

4. Not that kind of doctor

Whilst 24% of the astronaut corps analysed had a doctorate in a STEM field, 79% of the 70 CSA candidates have or are studying for a doctorate. This is an incredibly larger proportion than was discovered before. Perhaps there is now a paradigm shift from a preference of military pilots to holders of advanced degrees and highly intelligent astronauts (not to say they are mutually exclusive!) Either way, this in a way reaffirms one of my reasons for choosing to study for a DPhil in Engineering.

5. That kind of doctor!

One new insight from this current analysis, and a possible reason for why there are fewer engineers than expected in this list of candidates is that there is an increase of physicians. Whilst there were only 3 astronauts with medical backgrounds in the astronaut corps I analysed, there are 16 candidates here that are. This represents 23% of the list of people and a significant portion of applicants. Perhaps the desire to learn more about the effects of the human body in space, and the requirement to do multiple science experiments in space has led to this increase in preference for physicians.

“Decide in your heart of hearts what really excites and challenges you, and start moving your life in that direction. Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in. Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.” – Chris Hadfield

Although there have not been any major changes in what it takes to be an astronaut, it is interesting to see the apparent rise of doctors of both kinds in contention of being Canada’s next astronaut. I will be following this closely and be sure to write again once we all know the outcome of the selection process.

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FYI, the spreadsheet with all the candidate’s data that was obtained from the CSA website can be found here: csa-astronaut-analysis.

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