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Former Thirsk astronaut to help determine Canada's place on the Mars mission

OTTAWA – The Canadian Space Agency said it wanted to recruit former astronaut Robert Thirsk to help him find out how to contribute medical expertise to the human mission to Mars.

Thirsk is a medical doctor who holds the Canadian record for time spent in space, thanks to an extended mission on the International Space Station in 2009. It was two qualifications considered by the space agency for a $ 94,500 contract announced publicly on Friday, said Thirsk is the only person on Earth that fits the bill.

"As such, Dr. Thirsk is uniquely positioned to provide a crew and medical personnel's CSA perspective with regard to health and performance requirements during long-term flights, as well as related capabilities to meet these requirements," the space agency said in a public post Friday.

It issued a "prior contract notice," basically an open call to anyone who thinks they can meet agency needs better than Thirsk to speak.

Because those requirements are defined in posts, no one can.

Chris Hadfield, perhaps the most famous astronaut in Canada, spent 166 days in space on two shuttle missions and stayed long on the International Space Station – but he was a pilot, not a doctor.

Another important Canadian astronomer, Julie Payette, was declared engaged for the next two years as Governor-General, while Marc Garneau, who is now federal transportation minister, wants to be re-elected to the House of Commons next fall.

Even if one wants the job, there is no proper qualification from the agent.

This work involves spending the next two years determining what Canadian scientists and health experts can do to help astronauts outside of low Earth orbit, and sell to the public about the benefits of investing in space health.

Thirsk will work with the "Canadian biomedical, health and performance community so that space health care solutions contribute to improving the delivery of remote health care on Earth, in addition to other terrestrial health care benefits," said the post.

Thirsk will also work with NASA "to secure an important and real role in the field of health and performance of astronauts."

The first year the contract is worth $ 45,000. The second optional year is worth $ 49,500.

Thirsk did not respond to a request to talk about the work on Friday.

The United States is contemplating a mission to Mars, possibly in the early 2030s when the two planets will be the closest. NASA administrators recently visited Ottawa to ask Canadian assistance for the initial steps, including a platform to orbit the moon for human missions there.

Long space missions damage astronauts' muscles and bones, causing them to be exposed to harsh radiation and can even damage their senses. An astronaut who is seriously ill or injured in an Earth orbit can be sent home quickly; people who are halfway to Mars can't.

A trip to Mars will take at least six months at a time, long enough for serious problems to occur – especially if the astronauts make the journey to arrive ready for physical work on the surface.

Thirsk led a panel of agency experts who recommended efforts to minimize this danger should be how Canada helps humanity explore space, in a report that has not been released.

Why are the qualifications for contracts drawn very narrowly?

"The contract is being proposed to develop elements of the health service vision outlined in the Experts Group Report (forthcoming) that combines the results of consultations with national and international experts," Canadian Space Agency spokesman Arielle Mathieu said in an e-mail. "Dr. Robert Thirsk, a former CSA astronaut, has been identified as having unique qualifications, experience, and availability to complete work.

"Suppliers who consider themselves to meet the requirements can still submit a statement of ability to be considered, before January 31, 2019."

Thirsk called on the federal government to "return sufficient funds" to the Canadian space program "as a means to expand our national capabilities and mobilize our citizens," in a submission that fell to the House of Common's financial committee.

The committee's final report includes a recommendation that the federal government commit in the 2019 budget for "significant sustainable investment" in space agencies and to "contribute to space and science exploration."

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