As an oceanographer, Jay Cullen has stood on the world’s most distant shores. The University of Victoria professor is now just one step away from setting “sail for the stars” to borrow a line from famed astronomer Carl Sagan.
Cullen is currently competing to become one of two new Canadian astronauts against 71 other candidates – an accomplishment itself if you consider that the Canadian Space Agency had initially received almost 4,000 applications.
“I think the opportunity to serve in the Canadian astronaut corps would be an honour and one of the most challenging jobs a scientist could take on,” said Cullen. “The opportunity to serve does not come along very often (this is the fourth call for astronauts in the history of the Canadian Space Agency), so when I saw in spring 2016 that applications were being accepted I knew that it was time.”
Cullen, a married father of three elementary school children, said his family has been incredibly supportive in offering much encouragement along the way.
Cullen said his children have been very excited about the prospects of their father going to space and the selection process itself. “Of course they ask questions about whether it is safe and how far away do you go?” he said. “But we are talking a lot about space exploration and science and the experience for them…has been very positive.”
Cullen said the next stage of the process involves written and situational tests of judgment, cognition and information recall. “As well, we are likely to undergo tests of our physical fitness and capability to take on the demands of astronaut training,” he said.
Cullen said the Canadian Space Agency expects to make a decision on the final two candidates in the spring.
As an oceanographer, Cullen studies the chemistry of metals in seawater that can be nutrients or toxins for microscopic plants in the ocean. The work is important for understanding climate change, the health of Canada’s fisheries, and the effects of pollution on the ocean. The parallels between the study of the oceans – which inspired Sagan’s description of Earth as the Pale Blue Dot – and space are striking.
“The ocean is arguably as unknown and inhospitable to us as is space,” said Cullen. Oceanographers – like astronauts – must also be comfortable working with the same people in very small spaces in challenging environments over potentially long periods of time.
“The work [of an oceanographer] is done under extreme conditions and shoulder to shoulder with colleagues that we live with and take meals with 24/7,” he said. “You have to be able to make decisions in stressful situations to make sure your mission is a success. In many ways, the abilities and temperament required is very similar to those required for astronaut trainees.”
If Cullen were to make the cut and join a mission on the International Space Station, he would have to hitch a ride on a Russian space ship.
“Every space flight is the culmination of years of work and training by every member of the team,” he said. ”Every precaution is taken to reduce and minimize risk and you have lots of talented, intelligent people on the ground and by your side to keep you safe. In such a case, while [there] is risk, I do not feel any trepidation.”
Those risks can be great. On Feb. 1, 2003, seven astronauts (six Americans, one Israeli) died when the American Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during its atmospheric re-entry. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986 seconds after take-off, killing its crew of seven. Cullen said every accident that takes the life of an astronaut is a tragedy.
“But, from every tragedy come lessons that serve to improve the safety and reliability of the spacecraft,” he said. “It is important to remember these sad events and to recognize the sacrifice of the explorers but also to know that efforts are redoubled at every point to avoid subsequent accidents.”
But such thoughts might be best reserved for the future and for now Cullen is excited about the final stage of the selection process.
“I am happy to part of the final 72 candidates. I was excited to know I will get to meet this talented group of people and to compare my skills and abilities with them,” he said.