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Off, up and away: Ottawa gives astronauts extra holiday time, perks in new contract

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What does an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) do on a day off, orbiting 400 kilometres above the Earth?

Canada’s newest space traveller, David Saint-Jacques, has this Christmas Day off — and if the past is any guide, he’ll fill the time with reading, movies, a telephone call and Earth-watching.

Christmas is one of 11 statutory holidays listed in a new labour contract for astronauts approved by the Liberal cabinet just five days before Saint-Jacques blasted off for the ISS from a launchpad at Baikonur, Kazakstan, on Dec. 3.

The Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft carrying Saint-Jacques, Oleg Kononenko of Russia and Anne McClain of the U.S. blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Dec. 3. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

A copy of the contract, obtained by CBC News, shows the contract for Canada’s astronaut corps has been sweetened considerably since its 2009 version.

Cabinet has added a new Aerospace Premium, worth an additional eight per cent of salary, for those working in high-risk or challenging environments, such as a space station.

There’s a new “incidental expenses” section, which reimburses astronauts up to $3,000 for out-of-pocket expenses related to any space flight.

Other improvements

Other improvements include a relocation allowance of $6,500 (alas, not available for moves to the space station), enriched vacation perks and leave with pay for professional development.

The new perks enhance the most recent salary scale, which has been in effect since April 1, 2017.

Saint-Jacques’ salary is somewhere in Grade 2 – the middle of three astronaut grades – which ranges between $134,300 and $160,900. He’ll get bumped up to Grade 3 ($160,900 to $189,600) — the highest grade — after he completes his space station mission next June.

Though this part isn’t new, Canada’s astronaut contract also covers all travel expenses, including accommodation and food, to allow an astronaut’s family to attend a launch.

We get memories for a lifetime.– Gov. Gen. Julie Payette,  a former ISS astronaut

Saint-Jacques’s wife and three children travelled to Baikonur to watch his launch aboard a Soyuz capsule provided by the Russian government. Ottawa will also pay their way to the landing site in mid-June.

The Canadian government also buys a $1.5-million life insurance policy to cover the time Saint-Jacques is aboard the space station, as required by the terms and conditions of the agreement.

On the down side, the deal does not pay astronauts any overtime beyond the stated minimum of 37.5 hours a week.

“Given the nature of work as an Astronaut, the hours of work are irregular and work demands frequently result in long work hours,” says Article 3.1 of the document.

The six-member Expedition 58 crew, from left – Serena Auñón-Chancellor, David Saint-Jacques, Alexander Gerst, Oleg Kononenko, Anne McClain and Sergey Prokopyev – gather for a portrait on the International Space Station. Saint-Jacques gets Christmas and New Year’s Day off. (NASA)

“In order to meet job requirements, an Astronaut must regularly adapt to changes in plans and work schedules with short or no notice.”

The contract provides for 11 paid holidays, including Christmas.

But the rules are bent when an astronaut is aboard the space station, said Audrey Barbier of the Canadian Space Agency, the astronauts’ official employer.

Collective mix

“The actual days they get ‘off’ are negotiated months before they get on-board and are usually a collective mix of the ISS crew member countries,” Barbier said in an email.

“For example, David does get Christmas but not Boxing Day. Currently, he will also get New Year’s and a Russian holiday on Feb. 25. Operations planning tries to respect all the national holidays of the crew members on board.”

So what do other astronauts do with downtime on the ISS? (It’s not like it’s easy to take a walk.)

Julie Payette, now Canada’s governor general, changes equipment on the international space station on May 31, 1999. She says many astronauts spend much of their days off watching the Earth out the window. (AP Photo/NASA TV)

“When you have free time, you can read a book,” said Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, a former astronaut who made two trips to the International Space Station.

“You can watch a movie on the computer, you can watch a program uplinked from the ground, you can use the phone to call your family and chat with them.

“But most of us, I must say, just drift to the window and look at the magnificent spectacle we have at our feet — planet Earth. We take pictures and we get memories for a lifetime.”

Follow @Dean Beeby on Twitter

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

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Shares were trading up over 5% to $3.07 in early afternoon trade.

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