Launching into unknown territory

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt

By Jesica Hurst, BA'14

In 2011, Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, MD’03, and his wife had the opportunity to watch the final launch of the Space Shuttle. Excited by the extraordinary event, they took a few photos in an attempt to capture the moment forever.

In one photo of Dr. Lehnhardt in particular, you can see exhaust fumes from the shuttle reflected in the lenses of his sunglasses. But if you look even closer, you will notice that 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,” Dr. Lehnhardt explained. “Most of the time, it just feels like it’s innate in me.”

Dr. 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 Dr. 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.

But this isn’t Dr. Lehnhardt’s first attempt to become an astronaut. During the last CSA application process, which took place in 2008, Dr. Lehnhardt made it to the top 200.

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

Since being eliminated eight years ago, Dr. 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 Medicine & Dentistry, Dr. Lehnhardt went on to become an Attending Physician and Assistant Professor at The George Washington University (GWU) School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He works in the Emergency Department at GWU Hospital and the DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Dr. 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 who is 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 that I really love and that I’m very passionate about. And I’m lucky that I’ve been able to find that in my career.”

When reflecting on the medical education he completed at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, he feels thankful that 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 Dr. Lehnhardt enough support and flexibility to be able to seek out other opportunities for training around North America.

“At Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, everyone was very open to the idea that I wanted to do something that was a little different or unusual,” he said. “That was really important for me, because 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 dreams that are outside-of-the-box 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 Dr. 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 also a self-proclaimed ‘space nerd’.

“You can’t do something like this without the support of all of the people around you, and lucky for me, I’m pretty sure my wife believes in me more than I believe in me,” Dr. 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,” he said with a laugh.