Q-and-A: Former astronaut visits Rye

Yaroslav Pustovyi, Ukraine, Canadian Arrow, CSCA, Robert Mackenzie

Yaroslav Pustovyi worked for the Ukrainian National Space Agency before coming to Canada. (Courtesy Yaroslav Pustovyi)

Yaroslav Pustovyi is a former astronaut with Ukraine’s National Space Agency, who is now working in Canada’s private space sector.

Today, Pustovyi is the chairman of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, and helps run Space 1 Systems (S1S), a Canadian commercial spaceflight company he co-founded in 2009.

Pustovyi spoke to Ryerson students in the SLC Tuesday about his career and Canada’s private space sector, in an event organized by Ryerson’s Space Society to kick off World Space Week.

How did your career as an astronaut start?

I went to space academy and graduated as an engineer. I didn’t think much about flying in space, but I always wanted to…like anyone else probably. But because it was always a long shot—and with the perception that it’s impossible to get selected and all this—I was just doing my research. I was then living in Ukraine and working on my PhD. I’m about one month before the public defence of my thesis, and my dad comes from work and he’s got this information for me. He goes, ‘do you want to fly a space shuttle?’ He said the space agency is selecting people for joint missions with Americans. So I went for an interview to the space agency.

How was the interview process?

It was end of May, beginning of June 1996. Again, you have to understand, I’m like several weeks before the public defence of my thesis. I can’t think about anything else. I am completely swamped with all this preparatory stuff. I went for the interview without any expectation or anything. The interview was fine, I went for my thesis and that was all fine, I went on vacation after that. And suddenly they called me for medicals. They sent me with another candidate to NASA for medical checkup and initial introductory training for the experiment. Then I came back, and that was the hardest part probably because you already know you are close and now you have to wait. It was beginning of September when finally the word came back and they said myself and another gentleman, Leonid Kadenyuk, who was actually a former Russian cosmonaut, were selected for this mission as payload specialist candidates.

Was this the NASA space shuttle mission STS-87?

Yes. They choose the biological experiment because both the United States and Ukraine are good at land biology in space. Eventually, the government commission between the Ukrainian president and American vice-president Gore decided Leonid Kadenyuk would be the primary payload specialist and I would be his backup. At any rate, I went through the same course of training because I was supposed to replace him at any point if it became necessary. And while Leonid Kadenyuk was performing the experiment in space, I was tasked to perform what is called a ground control. Ground control is the same set of experiments done in the same environmental conditions, to see the difference between earth and space.

Yaroslav Pustovyi, STS-87, NASA, Robert Mackenzie

Yaroslav Pustovyi was the backup payload specialist for NASA’s STS-87 space shuttle mission in 1997. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

When did you start working with Canada on the Canadian Arrow program?

At our space agency there was a newsletter. One of my co-workers was like, “Did you read this newsletter? They select astronauts for private space flight.” I took a look and found out that Canadian Arrow, the company from London, Ontario, was an entrant to the international Xprize competition. Canadian Arrow was looking for people to apply for their astronaut team, the people who would eventually fly their vehicle. So I figured I had nothing to lose and applied. And guess what, I was invited to interview and eventually to join Canadian Arrow as an astronaut. That happened in the summer of 2003. 

When you started S1S, were there a lot of private companies in Canada’s space sector?

You see, when you say “space company,” it could mean anything. If you mean rocketry companies, then I would probably say we were the only one. Maybe there are some other companies I don’t know about, but we always considered ourselves as the only one—the only chance Canada has in these kinds of activities. I guess at the time we were the only ones who were trying to push the suborbital space flight business.

Have you seen the private space sector grow in Canada?

Commercial space is developing in Canada, but not on the rocketry side I would say. The rocketry side is basically undeveloped in Canada.

Is it important for the rocketry side of the private sector to grow in the country?

Absolutely. I’m convinced that it is essential. Some people believe that Canada shouldn’t do rockets. I respect their opinion, but I think that access to space is critical for many reasons. Even from a national security and defence point it is important that Canada has its own technology to access space, both suborbital and orbital.

Why do you think young engineers, entrepreneurs and the like should think about joining Canada’s private space sector?

You see, the private space sector, in my view, is wider than you think. There’s a word, it’s called ‘NewSpace.’ NewSpace is this new, entrepreneurial approach to space. This is all technical, but it’s important to understand what NewSpace is, and I’m actually going to explain it at my presentation. I think this NewSpace model is the future, but at the same time, space is not just restricted to engineers and scientists. Space also has aspects of other professions built into it. There is a lot of opportunity to build a lot of different businesses that are on first glance not space-related, but using space components. This is why I think it’s important for future professionals in all fields, especially in the fields that are much related to space, to understand the opportunities with space. 

What is the main message of the talk you’re going to give at Ryerson?

I would say that NewSpace is the future for everyone who can see the opportunities that is presents.

This interview has been condensed for clarity

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