HOUSTON — It’s like a high-tech, high-stakes Canadian Idol finale — only instead of a recording contract, the prize is a perilous 10-day journey into deep space and a permanent place in history.
Later today, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency will introduce the four astronauts who will steer the next stage of an ambitious plan to establish a long-term presence on the moon.
One of them will be Canadian — the first ever to venture beyond Earth’s orbit and around the dark side of the lunar surface.
Artemis II, as it’s known, is currently slated to launch as early as November 2024 and will be the first crewed mission to the moon since the final Apollo mission took flight in 1972.
The crew will orbit Earth before rocketing hundreds of thousands of kilometres into deep space for a figure-8 manoeuvre around the moon before their momentum brings them home.
The other three astronauts will all be American, making Canada and the U.S. the only two countries to ever venture that far into space.
The plan is to put a man and woman on the moon in 2025 in service of the ultimate goal: eventually dispatching astronauts to Mars.
President Joe Biden articulated the vision last month in his speech to Parliament, seizing on the Artemis mission as a towering symbol of limitless potential for Canada, elbow-to-elbow with the U.S.
“We choose to return to the moon, together,” Biden enthused, invoking the famous words of John F. Kennedy in 1962.
“Here on Earth, our children who watch that flight are going to learn the names of those new pioneers. They’ll be the ones who carry us into the future we hope to build: the Artemis generation.”
Canada’s current astronaut corps is comprised of just four people, including David Saint-Jacques, an astrophysicist and medical doctor from Montreal and the only member of the group who’s already been to space.
Saint-Jacques, 53, flew to the International Space Station in 2018. He was selected for the corps in 2009 alongside Jeremy Hansen, 47, of London, Ont., a colonel and CF-18 pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Joining them in 2017 were test pilot and Air Force Lt.-Col. Joshua Kutryk, 41, from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., and Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons, 34, a mechanical engineer and Cambridge University lecturer from Calgary.
“This is a big moment for humanity,” Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Sunday after touring the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he had a chance to chat with astronauts and visit Mission Control.
“This time Canada is writing history with our American friends … it’s not even a new chapter. For me, it’s almost like a new book in space exploration.”
On the ground, Canada is engaged in a variety of cutting-edge research endeavours that will be of mutual benefit to Artemis, Champagne said.
In the “Deep Space Food Challenge,” launched in 2021, participants must develop ways to produce food in the harsh environments of deep space with few resources — think Matt Damon in “The Martian” — that will one day be necessary to sustain life.
Those challenges will only become more difficult as Artemis moves into its later stages, which include a long-term presence on the moon and ultimately voyaging to Mars.
“As one scientist only recently said, ‘The science of today is the economy of tomorrow,'” Champagne said. “By increasing the complexity, that’s why we push the boundaries of science and innovation.”
Former astronaut and now-retired Quebec MP Marc Garneau, who back in 1984 became the first Canadian to ever go to space, said Biden’s speech left him with a “flashback” to another seminal moment in Canada-U.S. space relations.
Garneau’s maiden Space Shuttle flight was still three weeks away when he got an invitation to go to the White House along with two of his fellow crew members to meet the U.S. president.
As it turned out, he wasn’t the only Canadian meeting Ronald Reagan that day in the Oval Office. So too was Canada’s newly elected prime minister, Brian Mulroney, whose friendship with Reagan has since become the stuff of bilateral lore.
“We were invited to the White House — to the Oval Office, in fact — and met with the president and the new prime minister as they met for the first time,” Garneau recalled.
“That was an example of space being one of those things that exemplifies how Canada and the United States have been really, really good partners … and how close our two countries really are with respect to space, and in other ways as well.”
Canada and NASA have been working together since the early 1960s and the headiest days of the U.S. space program, when Canada’s first satellite was launched on a U.S. rocket, Garneau said. The Canadarm, that iconic, Maple Leaf-emblazoned fixture of the shuttle program, would later cement Canada’s status as a country the U.S. could count on.
“It’s built on the fact that Canada has always been a reliable, dependable partner that has delivered what it said it would do,” Garneau said.
“We have an incredibly good reputation from that point of view.”