Western University’s space geology training is suddenly a trending topic.
After years educating astronauts in Canada and other countries, the university is potentially on the leading edge of assisting a new effort: to send a Canadian to lunar orbit by 2023.
This historic mission, known as Artemis II, may usher in a series of Moon-landing missions similar to what we saw during the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s. These landings may start in 2024 and, subject to budget and technology and commitment, continue indefinitely.
To make the best use of our precious time on another world, each astronaut must be highly trained in geology. Each astronaut must not only understand rock types, but their context, making it easier to photograph the site, record the samples and pick them up for further analysis on Earth.
That training starts right here on our own planet.
“ASCAN” and planetary geology training
Western University planetary geologist Gordon Osinski — known as “Oz” by the space community — has spent years ushering astronauts on field expeditions and providing planetary geology training.
Oz’s many hats in lunar and planetary geology include being the director of the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western, director of the Canadian Lunar Research Network, and Chair of the Planetary Sciences Division of the Geological Association of Canada, to name a few examples.
“I’ve been involved in two different ‘styles’ of astronaut training to date. The first is the Earth and Planetary Science Training for Astronauts provided during their two-year initial training,” Oz told SkyNews.
All aspiring astronauts hired by a space agency in the International Space Station agreement (including Canadians) go through a two-year certification period where they are called an astronaut candidate — or “ASCAN” — and receive basic training in aspects like spacewalking, the Russian language, teamwork in tough isolated environments and geology, among many other things.
Canadian Space Agency astronauts Jenni Sidey-Gibbons and Josh Kutryk just completed their candidacy training in 2020, and their schedules — along with all the Americans in that class — were supervised by fellow CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen, the first time a Canadian has held that role instead of an American NASA astronaut.
Oz has been involved in ASCAN geology training for a while, and noticed an increase in how much planetary science training was asked for with this 2017 group of astronauts. Another NASA astronaut class is being hired right now, and the emphasis on lunar geology may be even more pronounced now that Moon missions are literally on the horizon.
As for the second style of training, Oz has done expeditionary geology work with Hansen and fellow CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques, both of whom were hired in 2009 and certified as full astronauts around 2011. (Of our four astronauts, Saint-Jacques is the only one to have flown in space so far, during a six-month International Space Station mission in 2018-19.)
“This [training] was conducted after their initial [ASCAN] training … and involved them accompanying me on expeditions to remote sites in the Canadian Arctic,” Oz said. “This training was more one-on-one, focused on the geology of meteorite impact craters – a ubiquitous landform found on the surface of the Moon — and also focused on developing other expeditionary skills that pertain to working on remote, harsh and dangerous environments. There is definitely a need for much more of this type of training for astronauts in the lead-up to lunar missions.”
Western’s role in the new push to the Moon is still being discussed, but Oz notes he remains active in his role as part of the Earth and Planetary Science Training for Astronauts group based out of NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, which is already putting in place plans for training the Artemis astronauts.
Oz says the training the newer ASCAN geology training isn’t too different than what the Apollo astronauts received, particularly the so-called “J-class” science-focused missions of Apollos 15, 16 and 17 in 1971-72.
Of the six human missions that landed on the Moon, these last three J-class excursions asked astronauts to take on more geology work, to drive rovers to increase the distance one could go hunting for lunar samples, and to work in more challenging “highland” environments that had rocks from numerous eras of the Moon’s approximate 4.5-billion year history.
Oz said the major difference between Apollo and modern training so far is the time spent on geoscience training, although that could change as Artemis flights are assigned. “Apollo astronauts were out in the field studying geology on almost a monthly basis in the lead up to their missions. This has obviously not been the case in the past decade as the flight opportunities were not there.”
We should also remember that even in the 50-year gap between Apollo and Artemis, geoscience training did continue for astronauts. The difference, however, was the emphasis on training from Earth orbit, the home operations for the space shuttle and the International Space Station.
“This is about doing ‘geology from afar’, with an emphasis on looking for, and recognizing, landforms — such as how to tell if a mountain is a volcano or not — the major biomes of the Earth, and various aspects of atmospheric and ocean science,” Oz said. “This is quite different than surface training, where there is a much big focus on identifying types of rocks, their textures etc.”
Canada’s flight pace in recent years has been modest, as the roomy space shuttle retired and a typical mission on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft could only hold three people instead of the previous seven. Paired with our small 2.3% contribution to the ISS program, this put a Canadian in space roughly every six years – the last two missions being in 2012-13 and 2018-19.
But with commercial crew vessels from SpaceX and Boeing slowly coming online, the number of astronauts per mission increases to four – meaning that Canadians could be flying more quickly. At least two astronauts are pledged to fly before 2030, and more opportunities could open as the decade continues.
Elizabeth Howell (Ph.D.) is a Canadian space journalist who has been obsessed with the topic ever since she, as a young teenager, saw the movie Apollo 13 in 1996. She grew up wanting to be an astronaut. While that hasn’t happened (yet), Elizabeth has seen five human spaceflight launches — including two from Kazakhstan — and she participated in a simulated Red Planet mission at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.