(Just announced Friday, March 3, that Erik has made the top 32 of candidates still under consideration!)
Having made the short list for selection as a Canadian astronaut, Aerospace Engineering at Illinois alumnus Erik Kroeker credits his maternal grandmother, Dorothy Charlesbois, for fueling his desire for space travel.
“My grandmother was a huge, huge fan of Roberta Bondar (Canada’s first female astronaut and first neurologist in space),” Kroeker said. “When we were young, (Grandmother) would tell us a lot about (Bondar), and that was a very early inspiration and got me interested. It became sort of an obsession at that point.”
From his youth to adulthood, Kroeker eagerly followed the activities of the Canadian Space Agency and the country’s astronauts who were chosen for space shuttle and International Space Station missions with NASA colleagues. He proudly lists a number of contributions the Neighbors to the North have made to space exploration: Canada’s Alouette 1 satellite was among the first to use solar panels; the country developed revolutionary communications systems; and Canada invented the Canadarm, a robotic arm used in space.
Now Kroeker, who earned his master’s degree (2009) and PhD (2016) in AE at Illinois, is one of 72 individuals chosen among the 3,772 Canadians who survived an exhaustive application process – one requiring answers to 100 various questions. With four stages remaining in narrowing the numbers, only two finalists ultimately will be chosen.
Kroeker recently traveled to Canada to undergo a rigorous assessment that included mental and physical exercises. “They put us through the ringer,” he said. “They wanted to see how we behave under pressure, as well as assess our leadership, motor and cognitive skills.”
He has been putting himself through daily weight and core strength training to excel at the physical requirements. He has a leg up in that area, as he has worked and rowed with the University of Illinois rowing team the past nine years.
It would also be expected that he would have an advantage in technical knowledge. In addition to his educational background, including his AE degrees and bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University, Kroeker currently works as an AE Adjunct Lecturer specializing on satellite research for space missions, as well as a Staff Scientist for CU Aerospace.
However, the recent assessment didn’t concentrate on technical knowledge. “The majority of it was how to problem solve and work in groups,” Kroeker said. “They wanted to know, ‘Can you relay and execute instructions? If you are given a scenario and are asked to work out a solution with others, did you work quickly or methodically?’ It was generic enough so that you wouldn’t have to have specialized knowledge.”
If Kroeker is chosen, he doesn’t expect to don a spacesuit right away. First, he would be trained for a few years as an astronaut candidate. And, he noted, only one in 50 of the astronauts selected to go to the International Space Station are Canadian. “It would be a 9-year kind of wait from when you get picked and when you get to go up,” he said.
The decision from that assessment is expected early in March.