Doctor Sets Sights on Space Travel

Guelph Grads on the Go: Aspiring astronaut likes to go fast

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Kris Lehnhardt

Dr. Kris Lehnhardt is shooting for the stars. Ever since he started watching Star Trek as a kid, he wanted to become an astronaut. He still remembers watching his first televised space shuttle launch in Grade 2.

But his interest in space took him on a different path. “As I was trying to decide what career I wanted to do, medicine seemed like a logical choice for me,” says Lehnhardt, B.Sc. ’99. “Knowing that there were physicians who had become Canadian astronauts, I went to medical school and pursued my emergency medicine training, always with the hope in the back of my mind of becoming an astronaut.”

Now an emergency physician in Washington, D.C., he continues to pursue his dream. In 2008, he was among 5,500 applicants in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut selection campaign and placed in the top 200. He has since earned a private pilot’s license and became an open water scuba diver to improve his chances in the next round.

“The journey is as important as the destination,” he says of his astronaut ambitions. “Even if I’m not successful, which I obviously hope that I am, then at least I’ll have enjoyed everything I’ve done along the way.”

If he does get selected, what does he look forward to the most?

“Most people enjoy their first view of the Earth from space,” says Lehnhardt, but he adds that he’s more excited about the liftoff. “I like to go fast, and it’s hard to go faster than a rocket that’s shooting up into orbit.”

Throughout high school, Lehnhardt worked hard to get good grades, which earned him a President’s Scholarship from U of G. “The financial assistance that the scholarship provided really made it possible for me to go to university and easier on my family,” he says. The President’s Scholarship also allowed him to focus on his studies and improve his chances of getting into medical school.

“The biomedical science program I was in was a great preparation for medical school,” he adds. The program involved dissections of human cadavers, a unique opportunity for undergraduate students.

As a medical student at the University of Western Ontario, Lehnhardt couldn’t decide which field of medicine he wanted to specialize in. “When I spent time in the emergency department, I realized it was what I wanted to do because it’s never the same thing twice,” he says.“You’re always seeing different patients, and although they may have the same problem, they all present in a slightly different way.”

During his emergency medicine residency, he took a flight surgeon course on aviation medicine with the Canadian Forces and joined the health services primary reserve list. He is now a Major in the Royal Canadian Air Force and plans to do more training before being deployed for disaster relief missions.

Lehnhardt’s background in aviation medicine allows him to treat crew members and passengers as well as patients who are being transported by air. “Most of the care you provide is on the ground to pilots and flight attendants and people who fly regularly,” he says. “If they have a medical condition or if they take certain medications, it can affect their ability to fly.”