Monday was far from the first time Calgary astronaut-in-training Jenni Sidey-Gibbons cast her eyes skyward.
But this time, it was different for the 30-year-old mechanical engineer and combustion scientist, as she watched her Canadian Space Agency colleague David Saint-Jacques breach Earth’s atmosphere in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, successfully completing the six-hour journey to dock with the International Space Station just after noon Calgary time.
“It’s incredibly exciting. The human side of it, of seeing David finally launch is amazing,” said Sidey-Gibbons, who watched the first Canadian fly into space since Chris Hadfield in 2013 at Canadian Space Agency headquarters in St. Hubert, Quebec.
“I feel so proud to be in a corps with the people I work with.”
It’s been just over a year since Sidey-Gibbons was selected along with Fort Saskatchewan’s Joshua Kutryk to join Canada’s ranks of astronauts from a short list of 17 candidates. Since last August, she’s undergone rigorous astronaut candidate training at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, studying everything from robotics to Russian to an intimate understanding of every switch, button and toggle on the International Space Station.
In preparation for the challenge of working in zero-gravity environments, she’s also logged many hours in the Sonny Carter Training Facility’s neutral buoyancy lab, a massive dive tank that includes full-scale mock ups of ISS modules and components.
Those training sessions, in which Sidey-Gibbons dons a full spacesuit while learning to manipulate tools and propel herself in a weightless environment, can be particularly taxing, she said.
“The spacesuit can be very difficult to manoeuvre — it feels like like you’re operating this machine, like it is your own little human-shaped spacecraft,” she said of the simulated space walks.
“But your spacesuit doesn’t move the way your body moves.
“You really have to be physically robust. You can spend six hours of work or even longer in a suit.”
The intensive training has also seen Sidey-Gibbons take the yoke of a supersonic T-38 Talon jet trainer (her favourite part of the job so far), which aids prospective astronauts in making quick decisions in critical situations.
“You have to think fast. You think in terms of about a mile a minute, but this is more like a mile every 20 seconds,” she said.
Now more than halfway through her two years of basic astronaut training, Sidey-Gibbons noted even when that hurdle is completed, the training continues until the day she’s finally chosen to take her place among the stars, a dream she said she’s carried since she was a child.
It would make her the third Canadian female astronaut in space, following in the footsteps of Roberta Bondar and now-Governor General Julie Payette, who paved the way for Calgary-born Sidey-Gibbons.
“There’s so many opportunities now,” Sidey-Gibbons said of modern spaceflight, which has seen commercial interests enter the field, which once was only the domain of governments.
“It’s really changed what the next generation thinks is possible. As far as timelines (for her own first spaceflight), it’s difficult to tell because of how fast space is changing.
“It’s just going to change very rapidly and it’s very exciting.”
On Twitter: @ShawnLogan403