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Astronaut candidate Scott VanBommel inspiring students in small, rural schools like where he grew up in Norwich

By Jennifer Vandermeer, Norwich Gazette/IngersollTimes

NORWICH - 

“Stay curious and ask questions.”

That's how Scott VanBommel signed his autograph for about 20 Grade 4 students at Emily Stowe Public School.

One of those students had asked VanBommel for his autograph when he visited the school for an interview with the Norwich Gazette Feb. 2. She may not have known why she wanted it, but VanBommel looked like he might be important, so better to have it than miss an opportunity.

He didn't scoff, but VanBommel told her if he gave her his autograph, she'd have to give him her's.

“But why? I'm just a kid,” she said.

Eventually Scott and the girl traded autographs, and quickly, each of her classmates lined up to exchange signatures with him.

They may not know why they would want VanBommel's autograph, and they certainly couldn't understand why he would want theirs, but that was kind of the point. Who knows who those students may grow up to be, or what things they might do in her lives. There's no way to know yet what successful people might come of that class of nine-year-olds from Emily Stowe Public School in Norwich – the same small, rural community that is the hometown of someone who could be one of Canada's next astronauts.

VanBommel is currently one of the 72 applicants remaining in the 2017 recruitment process conducted by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). There were 3,772 original applicants for this year's space recruitment. VanBommel is one of those who has made it through initial testing. Only two will be selected.

“The odds are still slim statistically,” he said, sitting in front of a selection of books about space in the school's library.

“Applying (to be an astronaut) is something I've always aspired to do. The career encompasses everything I've always wanted in a career,” he said, explaining even without space in the equation, the role requires learning every day, being part of a team, having the drive to achieve, and having a positive influence on the world.

In his profile on the CSA website, VanBommel explained why he wants to be an astronaut.

“Astronauts push themselves and others to be the best they can be alongside like-minded individuals from around the world. They break the boundaries of science and exploration all while engaging and energizing our leaders and decision makers of tomorrow. I am drawn to everything that comprises an astronaut's life on Earth. Add to that the possibility that one may get to go to space someday, and what more could one ask for?,” he wrote.

Though he isn't allowed to talk about what goes on in the recruitment testing process, the CSA website includes a list of key dates. This new batch of potential astronauts had applied by mid-August 2016, followed by preselection, a Public Service Entrance Exam and medical testing. Next up is additional testing and security clearance, final interviews and medical exams. The next two Canadian astronauts will be selected and an announcement made this summer, before the recruits are relocated to Houston, Texas to begin basic training at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – or NASA.

Until then, VanBommel continues to work on his doctorate in physics at the University of Guelph. Through his education, VanBommel has had the opportunity to work on the Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity.

“My team members and I analyze the data returned from Mars and contribute to the day-to-day operations of the rovers,” VanBommel said in his candidate profile on the CSA website.

He visited Emily Stowe in 2014 when he talked about his role in the development of an instrument mounted on the arm of the Curiosity rover currently traversing the surface of Mars. Curiosity was launched in November 2011 and VanBommel was in the control room of NASA's jet propulsion lab when the rover landed. It was a very detailed and minutely-planned launch with about a 50 to 70 per cent chance of successful landing. At the time, he said it was a perfect landing and when the rover landed, someone said, “We're safe on Mars.”

“I'll never forget those words,” said VanBommel in 2014. “It was the happiest night of my life.”

Now he's hoping he'll get to experience space in a new way.

Though VanBommel said he was always fascinated with space growing up, becoming an astronaut wasn't all that was on his to-do list.

“When you think about lofty goals, astronaut is one of those,” he said.

As a youth growing up in Norwich, VanBommel attended the former Norwich Public School (NPS), played minor hockey, soccer and was always playing sports with his friends after school.

VanBommel's parents, Ed and Jenny, said hockey was his love, and soccer was his passion. He continues to play both when he can.

“He always wanted to play the highest level he could,” said Ed. “He pushed himself. Scott was always a team player. He was never afraid to go new places and meet new people, either.”

Outside of sports, Jenny said her son has had a thirst for knowledge and learning and wondering since he was young.

“Scott always had a very, very inquisitive mind,” said Ed, describing family road trips where their son would ask many questions – and they always answered him.

They're very proud of their son.

“As parents, you always want them to achieve their greatest success,” Ed said.

VanBommel's interest in science began to come into clear focus when he attended high school at the former Norwich District High School.

VanBommel, who recently turned 30, has fond memories of the staff at both of his Norwich schools.

“You get a different feeling at a small school,” he said.

Though his memories of elementary school are faint, he knew that at least three of his teachers from NPS are currently teaching at Emily Stowe, including Mrs. VanKerrebroeck.

Ali VanKerrebroeck was VanBommel's Grade 1 teacher in 1993. She remembers him as being a keen student who was always interested in math and science.

“He was full of questions and always was interested in school,” she said. “It is amazing to see his accomplishments.

“Scott has had a support network of family, friends and educators that have helped him reach high for his goals. I am so proud when I hear these success stories.”

VanBommel believes it is because he was raised in a small, rural community and attended small schools that he has been able to achieve some of his successes.

Take hockey for example. He said anyone can apply the same hard work, dedication and perseverance taught on the ice to other areas of life.

“It's not just sports, too. Everything you do... if you commit to it, it's good practice for down the line.”

The values and guidance he gained in the small community atmosphere have helped shape the person VanBommel is today – and that's something he believes can help any young person achieve their own goals.

“He's so proud that he came from a small town,” said Ed.

The younger VanBommel's advice to the next generation is to surround themselves with people who help them be a better person, to be conscious of their health and make the most of opportunities. He wants them to know there are plenty of opportunities available as long as they are motivated and prepared to work for them.

“No matter what your aspirations are in life and what your goals are, if you dedicate yourself to them, they are achievable,” he said.

“Aspiring to be an astronaut isn't just about being a fantastic pilot or a world-renowned scientist,” he said. “The right stuff is more about a mindset to self-improve and improve the world of others around you.”

VanKerrebroeck backs up VanBommel's advice.

“I totally agree that with will and determination anyone can reach their goals,” she said. “Showing an interest in bettering oneself and setting high goals is important. Showing an interest in education and knowing that they are a life-long learner is important and I am so happy that Scott set such high goals.

“It is amazing to see someone from a small town do so well, but there are many kids from small towns all over Canada that have accomplished their own goals.”

To learn more about the Canadian space program, and to follow VanBommel's progression through the selection process, see the website http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronauts/recruitment/map.asp