Q&A with an astronaut candidate

Marc Evans is one of two UAlberta engineering graduates who have made it to the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut selection short-list.

(Edmonton) It was 1991, a cool winter day in Washington, D.C. where the Evans family was living. As Quebecers, they were undeterred by the chill, which would soon be behind them anyway. Marc Evans was six, and his parents were taking him and his younger brother and sister on the 12-hour drive south to Florida. Their aim was less about escaping the chilly weather, and more about diving into the mysteries of the universe at the Kennedy Space Center.

“As a kid I was the biggest Lego geek around,” Evans says. He was often at work engineering such Lego creations as buildings, cars and—frequently—rockets, so his parents planned the trip to include a look at some life-size rockets. Although it wasn’t Evans’ first exposure to space exploration—the family often visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington—the trip to the Kennedy Space Center stuck with him. Wowed by the grandeur of it all, he set his mind on becoming an astronaut.       

This childhood dream might soon become a reality as Evans, ’12 MSc (mechanical engineering), now a program manager for bomb disposal robots at Ottawa company Med-Eng, is in the running to become Canada’s next astronaut. He and another Faculty of Engineering alumnus—Logan Jones, ’06 BSc (mechanical engineering)—have been short-listed among 32 Canadian Space Agency astronaut hopefuls.

He took some time to answer a few questions recently.

What was the first thing you did when you found out you were shortlisted by the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut program?

I can't recall the first thing that came to mind when I found out I was a finalist—I was probably too busy doing a happy dance! Although there's still a long way to go, it's incredibly exciting to be this close.

I’ve wanted to be an astronaut ever since I visited the Kennedy Space Center and went home to fire model rockets with my dad. There is something utterly captivating about an adventure that starts on the end of a rocket.

Why did you apply to be part of the program?

Astronauts have the most interesting, most exhilarating job there is. They learn and train non-stop in order to contribute to cutting-edge science. There's never been any question in my mind that I would apply when the competition opened up.

What made you stand out from other applicants?

If I had to hazard a guess I would say they saw the interesting parallels between the equipment I help design and test at Med-Eng for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operators and the equipment used by astronauts when they're in space. We develop, analyze and test products at Med-Eng—like the bomb suit I’m wearing in the picture—that directly serve to save people's lives. And where astronauts use the Canadarm2 and Dextre on the ISS, EOD operators use bomb disposal robots. Astronauts use specialized tools to conduct repairs to the ISS, and EOD operators use specialized tools to deal with munitions and improvised explosive devices.

Much of what goes into developing EOD equipment would be useful when evaluating and using the next generation of astronaut gear. I'd love to apply my experience in robotics and integrated logistics support to plan and execute extra-vehicular activity on the International Space Station.

How does being a U of A engineer give you an upper hand in such a tight competition?

I'll be forever grateful that the Department of Mechanical Engineering provided me with such great hands-on research experience. I suppose the most important, most relevant advantage would be experience with the dos and don'ts of planning and conducting experimental research. That's not a skill that you can pick up from a textbook.

I also owe a lot to Renee Polziehn and the U of A Outreach team. In grad school I volunteered and then worked with the team. I was an outreach co-ordinator, organizing and participating in educational events for K-12 school kids, promoting higher education in Edmonton. If I'm selected, that experience will be invaluable. Educational outreach is one of the most important things an astronaut can give back.

Now that you know you're one of the 32 applicants selected for the next round, what’s your next step? 

This is far from a typical job interview. There are lots of physical and mental challenges and other evaluations that haven't been shared with us yet. The Canadian Space Agency intends to select the final two by mid-2017 so this translates to a very busy schedule for the pool of candidates between now and then. I consider myself one of the luckiest people to have made it this far.