This Dec. 2, 2016 image taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover shows rocky ground on the lower flank of Mount Sharp, a mountain on Mars. Curiosity landed on the red planet in 2012 and uncovered geologic evidence of an ancient environment that could have supported primitive life early in the red planet’s history. (NASA via AP)

Space agency picks ex-astronaut to figure out how to get people to Mars in one piece

Of Canada’s 10 retired astronauts, Dave Williams is one of only three who practised medicine

The Canadian Space Agency says it wants to hire ex-astronaut Dave Williams to help figure out how to get humans to Mars and back in one piece.

But if you’re also a medical doctor who’s been to space and you think you can do a better job, please let the agency know.

Williams is a doctor with experience on both the shuttle and International Space Station. The space agency posted plans Wednesday saying he will help them connect with medical experts and develop health-care solutions for future astronauts.

“The CSA is hoping to be able to … leverage the expertise that we have in space medicine to create the next generation of on-board care capabilities for deep space exploration,” Williams told The Canadian Press.

Longer space voyages, such as the years it would take to travel to Mars and perhaps back, mean astronauts will need to take care of their own health concerns, and that’s an area where Canada thinks it can contribute to a global effort to travel to another planet.

With an eye to sending humans to the red planet within two decades, the space agency says it needs the expertise and direct experience of someone like Williams.

It issued an “advance contract award notice,” essentially an open call for anyone who thinks they can better meet the agency’s needs to speak up.

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Of Canada’s 10 retired astronauts, Williams is one of only three who practised medicine. He holds the Canadian record for time spent on spacewalks: almost 18 hours over three sorties. He’s also spent 28 days in space over two missions and previously led NASA’s space and life-sciences directorate.

Williams will be working alongside Thirsk, who, with almost 205 days, holds the Canadian record for time spent in space. The space agency hired Thirsk through a similar process earlier this year.

(The third astronaut-physician is Roberta Bondar, who flew on a Space Shuttle mission in 1992.)

The job involves engaging with Canadian scientists and health experts as well as selling the public on the benefits of investing in space-health science, such as developing technology to administer health care without a doctor physically present, something Williams says could be used in remote northern Canadian communities.

He said space health care is a “tremendous opportunity” for Canada.

“We could not have built the International Space Station without the Canadarm and the Canadian involvement,” he said.

“The future, of course, is beyond Earth orbit and it’s exciting being able to identify major roles that Canada can play in those missions back to the moon and ultimately on to Mars.”

Thirsk and Williams were members of a 2017 expert group on the potential roles for Canadian health care in deep space flight.

Stephen Cook, The Canadian Press

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