Defence scientist was contender for spot as Canadian Astronaut

March 24, 2017

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is looking to recruit two new astronauts through its fourth astronaut recruitment campaign. Thomas Karakolis a defence scientist at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) was hoping to be one of them.

“Yes, I dreamed of being an astronaut as a child. But I never thought I would get the opportunity to try.  I feel very fortunate and very pleasantly surprised at how far I have gotten in the competition,” said Karakolis, who works out of DRDC’s Toronto Research Centre, in the Human Systems Integration Section.

Beginning the process in summer 2016, 3772 people completed the detailed application online.  The next step was the logic and reasoning sections of the public service entrance exam, where 1706 reached the cut-off score. In November 2016 the pool shrank to 163 and in December to 100. Next the Canadian Forces Health Services Group conducted preliminary medical testing. On February 1, 2017 the names and profiles of the top 72 candidates were revealed. On March 3, the top 32 candidates were revealed and unfortunately Karakolis was eliminated from the competition.

“The assessments tested my physical fitness and cognitive strength individually and they have included assessments which have tested cognitive and physical components at the same time. It’s all been a ton of fun, it has pushed my boundaries. It is one of the most exciting things I have ever done,” said Karakolis.

His current research focuses on assessing the biomechanical demands placed on members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), with the goal of preventing injury and improving performance across all branches.

New technology adds more capability to CAF members. Pilots use night vision goggles to be able to fly at night. Soldiers wear body armour that includes ballistics protection. But each of these new technologies has a cost associated with it. For the air crew they have more weight on their neck that could lead to injury. For the soldiers they may hinder their mobility, explained Karakolis.

The Human Systems Integration Team work out the cost/ benefit ratio and suggests how we can mitigate the risks associated with the technology used by CAF members, to prevent injury or compensate for impacts.

“For the Royal Canadian Air Force we are developing smart scheduling, so pilots and air crew have the appropriate amount of recovery time so they are not exacerbating their stressors leading to injury,” said Karakolis.

The astronaut hopeful sees the operational environment of working for the Department of National Defence (DND) as an ideal preparation for space. 

“Joining DRDC required a huge adaptation. Learning and get a better understanding of the demands of CAF jobs. I have been on Army and Air Force bases. I observed a reconnaissance course at CFB Gagetown and I went to shooting ranges in Valcartier.”

Astronauts not only need education and experience but they need to be physically fit and active, Karakolis competes with his brother to stay in shape.

“I am very competitive with my brother. We have done triathlons, half and full marathons. Basically endurance sports, I want to push myself to see exactly where I can go with my body. That has sort of been a metaphor for life and this process.”

Karakolis isn’t the only DRDC scientist who dreamed to be an astronaut. Dr. Ken Money began and ended his career at the Toronto Research Centre. He researched motion sickness in human spaceflight. Money was a member of Canada’s original astronaut corps, selected in 1983. He worked as an astronaut for nine years and conducted some of the first Canadian medical experiments in space. Dr. Money was also a former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot.

Ten other Defence Team members – former and currently serving members of CAF remain contenders for one of two positions to be filled in summer 2017.

“Every one of the candidates wants it so bad. Meeting the other candidates, has been an absolute blast. I hadn’t met any of the CAF members or other candidates before the selection process, but knew of some of them. It turns out we have a lot of professional and personal connections but quickly noticed how small of a world it was. DND is a really tight knit and supportive community,” said Karakolis.

There has been 12 Canadian Astronauts since the inception of the program in 1983, five of those were members of the Defence Team.

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