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Med alumnus ready to face final frontier

by Jesica Hurst | December 9, 2016

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt
The Canadian Space Agency’s recently named Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, MD’03, to its shortlist of the Top 163 candidates to fill one of two open astronaut positions.

In July 2011, Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, MD’03, and his wife watched the 135th – and final – launch of the NASA Space Shuttle program. Excited by the extraordinary event, they took a few photos in an attempt to capture the moment forever.

In one photo, you can see exhaust fumes from the Shuttle Atlantis reflected in the lenses of Lehnhardt’s sunglasses. And if you look even closer, you will notice there are tears streaming down the physician’s face.

“It can be really difficult for people who are passionate about human spaceflight to put our feelings into words, or to explain where our desire to do something like this comes from,” Lehnhardt explained. “Most of the time, it just feels like it’s innate in me.”

Lehnhardt has been fascinated with space for as long as he can remember. From watching Star Trek reruns with his mother, to playing with the Star Wars toys and Space Shuttle replicas that lined the walls of his bedroom, the majority of his childhood was spent dreaming of what it would be like to one day have a career that involved space

And now Lehnhardt is closer than ever to achieving that dream. He has made it to the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) shortlist of the Top 163 candidates to fill one of two astronaut positions.

In June, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, launched Canada’s fourth astronaut recruitment campaign. The CSA is seeking the next generation of space explorers to pave the way for potential future space missions.

The next class of Canadian astronaut candidates will start training at NASA in August 2017.

Through its participation in the International Space Station, Canada has developed an internationally renowned expertise in robotics and optics and has flown eight astronauts to space in more than 16 missions.

And Lehnhardt dreams to be among them. During the last CSA application process in 2008, he made it to the Top 200.

“During the last application process, the CSA made it clear it was only looking for people with work experience, and that a medical residency didn’t count as work experience,” he said. “I applied anyways and made it through multiple rounds of cuts before being eliminated. It was at that point when I realized even though this may not be something I ever achieve, it is more within reach than I ever thought it would be.”

Since being eliminated eight years ago, Lehnhardt has done everything in his power to put himself in a better position to be selected.

After completing medical school and an emergency medicine residency at Schulich, he became an attending physician and assistant professor at the George Washington University (GWU) School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C. He works in the Emergency Department at GWU Hospital and the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Lehnhardt is also the Director of the Fellowship in Extreme Environmental Medicine, and the Director of the Introduction to Human Health in Space graduate course at GWU, which introduces aerospace medicine concepts to anyone interested in human spaceflight.

In addition, the alumnus is a reservist in the Royal Canadian Air Force, an Aviation Medical Examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration, a private pilot and an advanced open-water SCUBA diver – all roles and skills that have the potential of making him stand out as a candidate.

“For the last eight years, I’ve been trying to work on myself and make myself into a better astronaut candidate,” he said. “But, at the same time, I’m also trying to do things I really love and I’m very passionate about. I’m lucky I’ve been able to find that in my career.”

When reflecting on the medical education he completed at Schulich, he feels thankful he had the support he needed to pursue his dreams, which were always a little outside of the box. Even though he wasn’t able to receive the aerospace medicine training he desired in London, the Emergency Medicine program gave Lehnhardt enough flexibility to be able to seek out other opportunities for training around North America.

“At Schulich, everyone was very open to the idea I wanted to do something that was a little different or unusual,” he said. “That was really important for me. I needed the flexibility during my residency to be able to seek out training opportunities, like spending a month learning from flight surgeons at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, for example.”

He encourages those who have outside-of-the-box dreams to pursue them by asking anyone and everyone for help and support, and by not being afraid to blaze their own trail like he did.

Now that Lehnhardt has made it to the CSA’s Top 163 candidates, he will continue to go through rigorous and thorough examinations – tests that cover everything from experience to medical history to mental stamina. If all goes well, his life could change completely.

Fortunately, he has the unwavering support of his wife, Emma, who works at NASA Headquarters and is a self-proclaimed ‘space nerd.’

“You can’t do something like this without the support of all of the people around you. Lucky for me, I’m pretty sure my wife believes in me more than I believe in me,” Lehnhardt said. “If you are selected, everything changes – you move to Houston to begin training, and it becomes your entire life.

“We recently got a new puppy and named her MECO – the acronym for ‘main engine cut off.’ So my wife has company in case I do have the opportunity to go into space.”

The Right stuff

What does it take to be an astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency? Here is a rundown of the basics. Colourblind people need not apply. You must:


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