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Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jenni Sidey-Gibbons graduates at Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas, on Jan. 10, 2020.

MARK FELIX/AFP/Getty Images

A few months into his training regimen, Canadian astronaut Joshua Kutryk found himself dangling from a crane together with more than 100 pounds of pressurized spacesuit and assorted equipment slowly being lowered in a giant pool at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

As the water bubbled up around his helmet for the first time and a full-scale replica of the International Space Station materialized in the depths below, he had one of those pinch-me moments that eventually comes to anyone who has experienced a one-in-a-million-shot dream turn into a full-time job.

“This is starting to feel fairly real,” he remembered thinking at the time.

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Fast forward nearly two years and Lieutenant-Colonel Kutryk, a former test pilot, along with fellow Albertan Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, is part of the latest cohort of astronauts to complete basic training, a milestone that means they are now eligible to fly in space.

Together with 11 U.S. colleagues, the two Canadians celebrated that transition Friday with a formal graduation before National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials and media – something that the U.S. space agency has not done in the past.

Dr. Sidey-Gibbons said that a highlight of the Friday morning ceremony came when the new astronauts were asked to speak about their fellow classmates and why they would want to be on a mission with them.

“These are people who are so exceptional and who I have learned so much with and from. I just couldn’t imagine a better group to be on that stage with," she said.

Both Lt.-Col Kutryk, 37, and Dr. Sidey-Gibbons, 32, received astronaut pins, which indicate their flight-ready status. By successfully passing the rigorous two-year training, they have now doubled the Canadian Space Agency’s current roster of astronauts available for assignments in space. David Saint-Jacques spent six months aboard the International Space Station last year. Jeremy Hansen is next in line to wear the Maple Leaf in orbit, likely during a flight opportunity for Canada that is expected by 2024.

Colonel Hansen, who was supervisor of the new astronaut class during its two-year training, was on hand to congratulate his Canadian colleagues on their achievement, which included learning to perform space walks and practise operating the station’s versatile robotic appendage, the Canadarm 2.

In their day-to-day routines, both Lt.-Col Kutryk and Dr. Sidey-Gibbons will continue to be based in Houston and will maintain their training while supporting current missions and participating in technical developments for the next chapter of human space flight.

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That chapter is aimed at returning U.S. astronauts – and potentially Canadians – to the moon during this decade as part of the Artemis and Lunar Gateway projects. Last year, Canada officially signed on as a partner in the Gateway project, a moon-orbiting platform that is meant to operate far more autonomously than the International Space Station.

A new-generation space arm with artificial intelligence capability is the most likely Canadian contribution to the project, but for the past few years the Canadian Space Agency has been exploring another potential niche in the domain of space medicine.

The development of lightweight and robust medical diagnostics is seen as necessary for deep-space missions to the moon and beyond, when a speedy return to Earth will not be a option in cases of medical emergency.

Isabelle Tremblay, director of astronauts, life sciences and space medicine at the Canadian Space Agency, said the need also dovetails with challenges faced by small communities across the Arctic that are far from big-city health centres.

“We are looking specifically at this potential, where space exploration and terrestrial partners can work together on solutions that will work both for space exploration and also to help deliver better health care in remote northern and Indigenous communities,” said Dr. Tremblay, who also attended Friday’s graduation ceremony.

The pivot from the Earth-orbiting station to a more ambitious lunar objective has meant that Canada’s astronaut recruits have been learning their new trade at a time of transition and rising expectations in the astronaut corps.

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“There’s definitely a lot of forward-looking work happening to test different technologies that we’ll be using," for lunar programs, Dr. Sidey-Gibbons said.

Even so, it is unlikely that either of the newly minted astronauts will leave the ground before the second half of the decade. In the meantime, Canada’s lunar push includes more near-term goals.

On Wednesday, the federal government announced the first in a series of contracts to develop technologies for remote exploration of the lunar surface.

The contract winner is Mission Control Space Services Inc., an Ottawa-based company that is working on artificial intelligence-powered software that will help autonomous robots discern scientifically interesting targets while avoiding hazards.

The company is already set to try out a version of the system that is designed for Mars exploration during field tests in Iceland later this year. The nearly $660,000 investment could set the stage for a Canadian role in a coming lunar mission.

“We see a real path to deploying this on the moon,” said Ewan Reid, the company’s CEO.

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