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Flood fight offers glimpse of how would-be astronauts cope under pressure


HERRING COVE, N.S. – “It’s gonna suck – prepare for the suck.”

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen gave those last words of advice to journalists before they entered a flood tank at a Canadian Forces training facility near Halifax.

The flood simulation was one small peek for reporters into the testing of the 32 candidates hoping to become Canada’s next astronauts.

For this stress test, the Canadian Space Agency uses the Kootenay Damage Control Training Facility near Halifax. As well as the flood simulator, the facility also has a smoke maze, rooms for firefighting training, even a helicopter crash fire training site.

The flood simulator is a 30-foot by 20-foot room outfitted like the inside of a navy ship.

Exercise control staff can fill the room with water; send water squirting through various breaches in the walls and cause pipes to burst unexpectedly. The water comes straight from the Atlantic Ocean.

Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen gave those last words of advice to journalists before they entered a flood tank at a Canadian Forces training facility near Halifax.

The flood simulation was one small peek for reporters into the testing of the 32 candidates hoping to become Canada’s next astronauts.

For this stress test, the Canadian Space Agency uses the Kootenay Damage Control Training Facility near Halifax. As well as the flood simulator, the facility also has a smoke maze, rooms for firefighting training, even a helicopter crash fire training site.

The flood simulator is a 30-foot by 20-foot room outfitted like the inside of a navy ship.

Exercise control staff can fill the room with water; send water squirting through various breaches in the walls and cause pipes to burst unexpectedly. The water comes straight from the Atlantic Ocean.

[More: scroll down for Jonathan Riley's first-person account of working with Jeremy Hansen]

“The water has been chilling for us all winter. I’ve done this a few times, I know what it’s about and it’s hard to get excited about going into the flood tank,” said Hansen.

The first time the 41-year-old fighter pilot went in the flood tank was in 2008 when he was a candidate hoping to be selected to become an astronaut.

“It was the longest day of my life. You’re exhausted.”

It was the final scenario of the day. He had just finished the fire exercise, a high intensity workout in full firefighting gear.

“I have never been so hot. I wasn’t sure I was going to remain conscious. And then I stepped into that water and the first five minutes it felt like bathwater. It didn’t take long though and I was cold, very cold.”

For the journalists, the water was only calf high. For the candidates, it streams in so fast that, by the end of their scenario, they are chest deep in water.

Evaluators are watching to see how well people are working together and if they are “getting stuff done”– closing the leaks in this case with various wedges, hammers and cloth wraps.

Hansen says the goal of this day-long test, done in teams of four candidates, is to see how they perform under stress.

“We really want to know what these people are like when they are not having fun anymore.

“Imagine you’re in a really tough situation on the space station and you’re not 100 per cent sure if you’re winning, if you’re going to lose your life or lose the space station, and we want to know that the people we’re sending to space will be working to their very last breath trying to save the lives of their crew members and also the space station.”

jonathan.riley@tc.tc

Truro Daily News reporter Jonathan Riley and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen teamed up to plug a leak in a flood simulator at the Kootenay Damage Control Training Facility near Halifax.

First Person: Star struck

But not wanting to strike the star

To be honest I am star struck.

Jeremy Hansen comes walking down the underground hallway in his blue Canada Space Agency coveralls.

He smiles at me and all I can say is “Hi” in a surprisingly squeaky voice.

“That’s Jeremy Hansen,” I whisper to one of the communication staff with the CSA. “He’s an astronaut.”

She looks at me sideways and raises her eyebrows.

“He’s made of gold,” she says. “We have to look after him.”

The 41-year-old fighter pilot from London, Ont. takes selfies with dozens of Canadian Forces personnel.

He jokes with the journalists.

Then he gets the nod and gets to work.

I stand beside Hansen as he addresses a live Facebook feed and a scrum of TV journalists, and me, the only print reporter there.

I am entranced by his poise, his humour, how down-to-earth he is.

I have to remind myself to take pictures and notes and video.

Hansen introduces the training scenario. We will be in a room built like the inside of a navy ship. That room will start flooding with cold water straight from the Atlantic. Our task is to work as a team and plug the leaks.

Hansen and two members of the Canadian Forces enter the flood simulator and show us how it’s done.

And now it’s my turn. I join Hansen in the simulator, holding a bag with a wooden hammer, wedges and blocks, and cloth to stuff into the leaks.

We wade through water up to our knees. More water is gushing through a hole in the wall. A burst pipe is spraying water in my face, soaking my clothes and blocking my vision.

Hansen holds a wedge in place and asks me to pound it in.

Let that sink in for minute.

He is asking me to swing a hammer at the hand of a Canadian astronaut, at the hand of a man who’s made of gold.

I think back to a painful childhood memory: roofing with my father. I remember him smiling at me, his patient explanation of the work ahead, him holding a shingle and a shingle nail and saying: “Go ahead. Pound it in.”

And then the cursing, the new vocabulary.

My father would never hold another nail for me his whole life.

And here is Jeremy Hansen, holding a wedge for me, asking me to swing a hammer at the hand that Canadian taxpayers have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into.

I want to show him I can be a team player; that I can co-operate and take orders.

But this is Jeremy Hansen’s hand.

I’ve actually done almost this exact scenario for real a half dozen times. As a volunteer firefighter I carry small wedges in my bunker gear to jam into sprinkler systems to stop the water. The sprinklers are always over your head. Your gear is soaked and heavy. You’re carrying an air tank on your back. It’s smoky and hot and you’re looking through a facemask into a steady steam of water, trying to jam the little wedge into the sprinkler.

If I could stop a sprinkler, surely I can hit this big wedge.

Jeremy is smiling at me.

“Go ahead. Pound it in.”

I swing the hammer for all I am worth.

Water keeps squirting and I keep pounding.

Jeremy holds another wedge and I swing again as hard as I can.

And then the exercise ends.

The control staff turn off the water.

“How did I do Jeremy?” I ask.

“You want the truth?”

I nod anxiously.

“You did great. You were in there and you were getting things done. And that’s what we’re looking for. People who can get things done.”

I doubt Jeremy wants me flying spaceships for Canada – but I’m happy enough that he trusts me with a hammer.

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