CPSX providing rock-solid training for the final frontier

Adela Talbot // Western News

David Saint-Jacques, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut, joined Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) this summer on a geological exploration mission of an impact structure at West Clearwater Lake in northern Quebec. While a lot of training for astronauts is simulated, Saint-Jacques said this one is the best because it simulates the environment in which he would work in space.

David Saint-Jacques calls it the perfect training scenario.

This year was the fourth consecutive year Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) worked with the Canadian Space Agency to provide training in field geology – not only to students, but astronauts as well. A research team, led by Earth Sciences professor Gordon Osinski, explored an impact structure this summer at West Clearwater Lake in northern Quebec.

“You can’t replace training like that. It’s the best, because it’s real,” said Saint-Jacques, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut who accompanied Osinksi’s team.

Saint-Jacques was on campus last week to follow up on the field research he did with the CPSX team, to meet with graduate students and deliver a lecture.

“I’m probably never going to go to the moon or Mars myself, but I’ll probably be involved in designing those missions or training the crews who will go. All astronauts get basic geology training, and we understand the language, requirements and the logic,” he continued, noting the geology training CPSX provides is an enhancement to his training, precisely because it is not geared toward astronauts.

Space exploration is an ongoing, ambitious and collaborative effort, Saint-Jacques noted. In order to prepare for future missions, including human and robotic explorations of space, astronauts need training in field science and geology.

“As part of continuation training, we work a lot on expeditionary behaviour and expeditionary skills. There are many ways to do this. Most of them are staged, tabletop simulations. But the best way is to go out into the field and join a real expedition, and that’s why we joined Oz (Osinski) and his mapping and discovery campaigns – because it is exactly the right environment, the right attitude and the right spirit that we need to develop as astronauts,” he explained.

“It’s perfect training for us. There’s the remoteness. And then there’s the camp life. You have to be always cognoscent of your equipment, what keeps you alive and well, just like what keeps you alive in space. And when you’re doing real research in that uncomfortable context, that’s very similar to life on board a space station.”

The crater Saint-Jacques visited with Osinski’s team formed approximately 290 million years ago and had not been studied in detail since the 1970s. The team looked at various aspects of the West Clearwater Lake impact structure and what clues it gives about the impact crater process.

It’s important to be organized and rigorous while in the field, Saint-Jacques said. This is something he is taking away from this last expedition.

“With the amount of effort, time and energy required to bring back one of those rocks, it’s worth thinking a few more minutes when you are there, deciding which one you’re going to pick and which is most useful,” he said.

“That highlights the importance of having a good system and having a good hypothesis, thinking about it before you go. When astronauts do this on another planet, on behalf of geologists on the ground, they’ll need to understand the critical element of using your judgment. And your judgment is only as useful as your knowledge.”

And he learned from watching the students, too, he added.

“We join these expeditions not so much because they are geology expeditions, but it’s to learn the attitude of a world-class academic expedition in the wild. It could be any subject but impact craters is one the best subject for us,” said Saint-Jacques.

“Osinski’s group has done the program with astronauts for four years and it’s real geology exploration mission. We just tag along. It wasn’t designed for us – that’s why it’s good.”

CPSX and the Canadian Space Agency hope to continue this collaboration. Osinski is planning another expedition next year and Saint-Jacques hopes to return.

“It is really invaluable. There’s even talks of inviting astronauts from other countries,” he said.