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Astronaut Jeremy Hansen Describes Living in a Cave to Prepare for Mars

"That was as close as you could get to exploring Mars on Earth."

Kate Lunau

Kate Lunau

Jeremy Hansen in the High Arctic in 2013. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Within the next decade, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen will blast off into space. In the meantime, he's preparing here on Earth—through expeditions in the High Arctic, at the bottom of the ocean, and with the astronaut corps in Houston, where he's based.

Hansen, a fighter pilot who was selected as an astronaut in 2009, spoke to Motherboard recently about what living in a cave for several days can teach you about exploring space, how he's supporting the selection of the next Canadian astronauts, and why he'd still really like to walk on the Moon someday.

Motherboard: The Canadian Space Agency is in the process of hiring two astronauts right now. Are you involved in that? What will your role be once they're selected?

Jeremy Hansen: I'm pretty heavily involved in the selection process, and we have so many great Canadians who can do this job. We anticipate hiring two [next summer], so it's a really daunting task. NASA has also asked me to be the supervisor for the new class [of astronauts], not just the Canadians but the Americans as well. So I'll be responsible for that.

Of course, I take that very seriously. I have to be part of that leadership that brings them into the fold, and make sure they have the opportunities they need to prepare in space.

"Class photo" of David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, along with other astronaut candidates recruited by NASA and JAXA in 2009, in a parabolic aircraft. Image: NASA

Let's talk about preparing to go to space, and practicing for what it will be like. How can you prepare for a mission in space when you're here on Earth?

We call them analog environments. We want to put astronauts in as close a scenario as we can to the real thing. We can create great simulations here on Earth that give you the experience of flying a spacecraft, or repairing something, or learning how to do a spacewalk. But any simulation you do, you know at the end of the day you're going home to your family. You're not going to be killed in a simulator.

I think there will be tourism in space in the next decade, and that is good for humanity

So we look for what I call operational experiences, where we put astronauts in real exploration scenarios. Although it's nothing like space, it's exactly like space with respect to managing risk. We use aviation as well. We put astronauts in high performance aircraft and we fly them because we know it's an operational task, and actions have severe consequences if you get them wrong. It's a real pressure, not just perceived.

Another thing we look at is the teamwork aspect. If we put six people in a tin can for six months, there's a real team dynamic that has to be formed there. We want to give people exposure to that on the ground.

Read More: Before He Was an Astronaut, David Saint-Jacques Was a Doctor in an Inuit Village

What's the most challenging analog environment you've visited?

Definitely [one of them was] the caving expedition in Sardinia with the European Space Agency. There was a lot of risk, and you had to be switched on all the time. If you have an accident or an issue, rescue is really challenging in a cave. They told us for every hour that we progressed into the cave, was a day on the stretcher to get you out. And we were hours into the cave. When you were asleep in your sleeping bag in a tent, that was about the only time you could let your guard down.

That was as close as you could get to exploring Mars on Earth—a completely foreign place, nothing known about it, and you're mapping it and you're way outside your comfort zone.

Canadian astronauts David Saint-Jacques (left) and Jeremy Hansen took training in the Kibo simulator at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Image: JAXA

The other Canadian astronaut, David Saint-Jacques, will be heading to the Space Station in 2018. When do you think you'll be going into space?

We have a second mission on the books and negotiated. We don't have the launch date secured, but it's sometime between now and 2024 that I'll be going to the Space Station. What's more important than that is that things are changing in space, and [new] opportunities are going to present themselves. That's why we're recruiting new astronauts.

Do you mean private space travel? What do you think about the role it will play?

I love it. It spells change in the future. It's telling us that in the next decade we're going to see rapid growth that will blow people's minds. The next decade will be completely different. We're going to have more space industry and more Canadians flying in space.

So you see some big changes ahead.

Yeah. And some challenges. But I think these things are going to be possible, and we're going to have to adapt quickly. I think there will be tourism in space in the next decade, and that is good for humanity. The more people that leave this planet and look back upon it and are impacted, the better for all of us.

Jeremy Hansen performing an extravehicular activity in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
Image: NASA

If you could go anywhere space, even beyond the solar system, where would you go?

I've never had somebody offer me the chance to leave the solar system. Do you know something about warp drive technology that I don't?

I wish I did!

I'd still really love the opportunity to walk on the Moon. I've wanted to do that since I was a young boy. My wife and I were just looking at the Moon the other day, and commenting, what would it be like if I were standing on the Moon, and she was here looking up there, and I was looking at her. That would be a unique human experience.

I think Mars is going to happen. I'd always thought it would happen just beyond my astronaut career, but you never know. I'd love to be an explorer on Mars—it has really intriguing mysteries to solve and it's a planet that makes sense to go to. I like the idea of having insurance in humanity's back pocket for ensuring we survive any potential disasters on this planet by diversifying across the solar system.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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