UVic oceanographer vies to become new Canadian astronaut

During childhood camping trips near his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, Jay Cullen often gazed up at orbiting satellites as they tracked across the night sky and pondered who built them, how they got up there and what new science they were designed to gather.

That fascination with all things space-related has not faded, which is why the University of Victoria oceanographer is on the Canadian Space Agency’s shortlist to become one of two new Canadian astronauts. Cullen is among 72 candidates left in the rigorous recruitment process, which initially had almost 4,000 applicants.

“I’ve always dreamed about going into space,” says Cullen, who says his background in science, education and exploration has prepared him well for the job of astronaut. “My motivation is the thrill of exploration and discovery, my belief in the scientific method as a way of knowing about our universe, and the need to improve public science literacy,” he says.

At UVic, Cullen studies the chemistry of metals in seawater that can be nutrients or toxins for microscopic plants in the ocean. The work is important for understanding climate change, the health of Canada’s fisheries, and the effects of pollution on the ocean.

“In many ways the ocean is just as unknown and inhospitable to human beings as space,” he says. ”My work is focused on understanding our planet so that we can be better stewards of our resources and help improve environmental and human health, which are inseparable. The goals of space exploration are very similar.”

In the coming weeks, Cullen will take part in a series of physical, mental and social assessments in an effort to progress to the next round in the recruitment process. The two winning candidates will be selected this summer.

Until now the focus has been on background and physical fitness for the job, says Cullen. “It’s been fun but challenging. This next phase will focus on what I can do and how I compare to the other applicants. I’m looking forward to it.”

When asked if he can sing and play guitar—in reference to famed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield—he jokes: “I do play guitar and bass guitar to relax, although my singing could use some work. Maybe the International Space Station has better acoustics than my bathroom. I hope so.”

Learn more about the astronaut selection process.