Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Who Would Be The Better Astronaut: Me or Ross Lockwood?

Who would be the better astronaut?
Right Image - Provided by spincrisis, photograph by Alex McHale

Chances are you won’t find “astronaut” lurking in the back pages of the jobs section on Craigslist.

Frankly, I didn’t think astronaut was a job you were hired for. I thought there was some sort of hallowed pool of humans who were just a little bit better than everyone else, and when they were needed, they got a call on a special red phone and they were whisked away for training.

Lucky for the rest of us normal people, the Canadian Space Agency is in fact looking for astronauts! The next one they choose could be a normal person like you or me. In the spirit of that, we chatted with Ross Lockwood, a recent U of A grad who has a keen interest in venturing to space.

Now we answer the question that’s been on your mind since you started reading this: who would make a better astronaut: yours truly, or Ross?


Ross Lockwood at the Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere (PoSSUM) Academy
Image provided by spincrisis, photograph by Casey Stedman

We’ll start off with the most basic of indicators: which one of us is currently more qualified to be an astronaut?

Right off the bat, Ross has me beat. He graduated with a degree in honours physics, with first class honours. The Canadian Space Agency states on their website that applicants must have a degree in either the engineering or science fields.

“I picked things based on my skill and interest. I did focus on stuff that had more practical applications, because you’re not doing theoretical physics in space, you’re doing experimental physics. Everything that happens in the space station and in space is hands on. I really focused on my lab courses, and I volunteered a lot at the observatory during my undergrad, which led to some of the opportunities I got in the intervening time.”

I doubt they’d have much use for my as yet incomplete Sociology degree unless they really want someone to explain Karl Marx’s theory of alienation while we’re up in space.


Ross Lockwood at the Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere (PoSSUM) Academy
Image provided by spincrisis, photograph by Casey Stedman

Ross has been through this application process before, meaning he’s been through all of the frequently asked questions, and all of the requirements. One thing that he said was going to be difficult to attain was flight experience. It’s expensive (especially for a recently graduated student) and time consuming. But he didn’t seem to think that was too much of an obstacle.

“I feel like in the modern space-age, pilot skills aren’t as valuable as they once were. People won’t be flying the ships, computers do a much better job, and humans introduce error. That being said, they still will have pilots, and they still will do flight training with a lot of the candidates because if a computer fails, you have to get the ship back on the ground yourself. I think they’re de-emphasizing the flight training more in favour of the hands-on experimental stuff, and then some of the outreach components, because a large part of an astronaut’s job is explaining what their job is, and getting other people excited about it so the space agency can source more funding, and do cooler things.”

While he doesn’t have formal pilot training, Ross has done a parabolic flight, where a plane flies in a parabolic arc and gives occupants about 30 seconds of simulated weightlessness, and he’s also done centrifuge training.

Meanwhile, I still refuse to ride the tamest roller-coaster at K-Days.

Feet firmly on the ground.
My feet remain firmly on the ground.

Living conditions

Ross Lockwood's living-quarters during the HI-SEAS Mars Simulation
Image and photography courtesy of Ross Lockwood at spincrisis.
Obviously, space is a markedly different environment than Earth. Living in a very cramped environment with many other people can definitely be stressful if you’re not used to it. But it turns out that Ross actually has some experience in a very space-like environment. When he was a PhD student, he took part in a four month long Mars simulation with the Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation (Hi-SEAS) project.

“It was six people living together in a 1600 square foot Mars style habitat, isolated on the lava fields of a volcano in the middle of nowhere. I certainly learned what it was like to feel lonely, while also simultaneously feeling annoyed as heck with five other people. There are all sorts of stressors present that are just part of the natural scenario there.”

I’ll be frank. I don’t do well with isolation, or small enclosed spaces, or the idea of having to fiddle around with a space suit for an hour before going for a walk outdoors. I’m going to chalk this category up to Ross as well, it seems like he dealt with it much better than I ever could.

Small space living.
Even this feels too confined for me.


Dehydrated Astronaut Food... yum?
Image courtesy of NASA

Unlike myself, Ross already has experience with the astronaut’s main source of sustenance: dehydrated food.

“First of all, I was a much better cook with dehydrated food than I had ever been with fresh produce and raw ingredients here, because dehydrated food is basically ready to eat, you just add water and heat it up. So when it came to stews, chillis, and soups, you didn’t have to be a cook, you just added a scoop of tomato, a scoop of onions, a scoop of celery, some chicken broth, and some dehydrated hamburger meat, and there, I’ve got a fantastic dinner for everybody ready to go. Dehydrated food was easy to cook, it tasted good, and the nutritional value was preserved, but you don’t get that consistency of something that you can bite into, it was always mushy.”

Mushy pizza? No thanks. I’ll stick to earth food thank you very much. Another point for Ross.

This was lunch yesterday - I'd it to be lunch everyday.... well, most days.

 Leisure time: 


Don’t let anyone say you can’t have fun in space. Ross and his Hi-SEAS colleagues even embarked on a camping trip during their simulation on the May long weekend.

“We simulated a camping trip on simulated Mars, where we basically set up a massive blanket fort down in the main living area, and had a camping trip inside of the dome. We printed out a set of Cards Against Humanity, and played hide and seek inside the dome. We had a karaoke night as well. The kinds of things you do with your friends for fun, we tried as much as possible to recreate those experiences. It was a great benefit to break up the worst aspects of the isolation.”

I have a staunch policy of not singing karaoke, and I don’t think me being in space would change that. Another point for Ross.


The final and perhaps most telling category. This is a goal Ross has worked towards for numerous years, whereas I, well, haven’t. Ross seems to relish the fact that a huge part of being an astronaut is putting yourself into an unknown situation.

“Part of doing a PhD in physics is learning something new about the universe, and being able to say “I created knowledge” in a way that hasn’t been done before. When you think about it, when you send someone to space, they’re living off the land, the land being everything they’ve brought with them.”

Plus, he had a much cooler sweater than I did at age four.

Space Sweaters
Note: Not actually either of us at age 4.

“I’ve got a picture of myself when I’m four years old, with a custom made sweater with a rocket on it, that said “Ross”, and it had the moon behind it, so the interest goes back to when I was really young.”

I wish I had that sweater today. (Aside from it having “Ross” written on it, I feel like that might be a little weird.)

So, if you’re reading this, Canadian Space Agency, if it were to come down to the two of us, I’d say Ross is definitely the better choice to be Canada’s next astronaut.

Zach - YouAlberta Contributor

Zach is a sixth-year Sociology major with a creative writing minor. Scared of being a real adult and being awake before noon. He can be found either eating, sleeping, meandering in the river valley, or watching a Toronto Blue Jays game. He misses having long hair because now none of his hats fit properly.

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