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Astronaut hopefuls whittled to 16

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TORONTO—Sixteen Canadians are now several steps closer to becoming Canada’s two newest astronauts—destined for a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station—after being plucked from a field of thousands.

The 15 men and one woman endured a number of physically and mentally demanding tests, including an underwater escape from an upside-down helicopter, and simulated fires and floods.

The Canadian Space Agency received more than 5,351 applications for the two prolific jobs, and the field now has been narrowed to the surviving 16, who range in age from 26-40.

“I am very pleased with the process,” Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean said in an interview yesterday.

“We were blind to all the secondary factors,” he stressed. “We were blind to gender, we were blind to religion, blind to where the person came from and also blind to language.

“So I really feel that we have the best 16 that the country has to offer, based on that process.”

The candidates were selected through a rigorous process that began with computer screening narrowing the applicant field to 1,000 people. A team then read all 1,000 résumés and picked 80 people to be interviewed.

After the interviews, 44 people were selected to undergo a series of six intensive tests.

In addition to a physical fitness test and interview, the candidates had to learn to control the Canadarm—the mechanical arm used by space shuttles—after three hours of instruction.

They also took a flight aptitude test.

The key was not for the candidates to perform the tests perfectly, MacLean said, but rather to show they had the ability to learn those skills.

“It’s not like we’re looking for them to be completely trained,” he said. “We’re seeing if they have the aptitude.”

For example, the flight aptitude test was not intended to measure one’s skill at flying an airplane, but the ability to navigate an instrument panel, MacLean said.

The candidates also were tested on how well they obey instructions by following steps to escape after being strapped into a helicopter that was flipped over and dunked into a pool.

As well, they were tested for teamwork skills—being put into groups of four or six and thrust into a flood situation immediately after a fire.

One of the 16 candidates is former Olympian Peter Giles, who was born in Lake Echo, N.S. and now lives in Halifax. He was a member of the Canadian team that finished seventh in the four-man 1,000-metre kayaking event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Giles, who was the assistant chef de mission for the Canadian team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, holds a PhD in applied physics from California’s Stanford University.

The space agency will conduct more interviews and medical tests before choosing the two newest members of Canada’s Astronaut Corps in May.

Those two will spend six months on maintenance and research at the International Space Station.

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