Governor General reflects on 1st moon landing

10 years after her last trip to space, NASA’s lunar missions still hold a special significance for former astronaut Julie Payette.

Former astronaut Julie Payette believes there's value in further lunar missions

Julie Payette, now Canada's Governor General, waves before setting off on space shuttle Endeavour on July 15, 2009, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

Governor General Julie Payette can't recall the precise moment Apollo 11's lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon — she was only five years old, and her mother later told her she was likely tucked in bed when the historic moment unfolded on television.

It, and subsequent lunar missions under NASA's Apollo program, would nevertheless leave an indelible impression on the young Payette.

"I do remember very vividly the later Apollo missions, Apollo 15, 16, 17," Payette told Hallie Cotnam on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"I remember watching them, sitting on the gym floor in my primary school and thinking, 'Oh wow, wow, this is extraordinary. I want to do that. I want to go in the rocket. I want to go to the moon.'"

As we look back 50 years to the Apollo moon landing, former astronaut (and current Governor General) Julie Payette reflects on the childhood memories that set her on a trajectory of space exploration. 10:01

Saturday marks exactly 50 years since that first lunar landing, though it wasn't until the early hours of the following day that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon's surface. 

While people the world over are reflecting on the landmark moment in space exploration, it's particularly poignant for those who have left Earth's atmosphere.  

"That blue marble on the backdrop of darkness was shining at us from very, very far. And it strikes you. This is it. This is the only place we've got right now," Payette said. 

Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks by the footpad of the Apollo 11 lunar module in July 1969. (The Associated Press)

It's a view Payette would come to see for herself when she flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1999. While she didn't get a chance to visit the moon, she would go on to log more than 25 days in space over two flights, serve as the chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency and eventually become Canada's 29th Governor General in 2017.

The former astronaut has also heard first-hand accounts of Apollo 11, meeting the mission's two surviving astronauts, Aldrin and Michael Collins. Collins operated one of the mission's three modules by himself while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. 

Payette said Collins shared some "mind boggling" stories with her about the experience — including his worries about getting back home.

"They had to fire one engine, and that one engine had to work, otherwise they would have been stuck on the moon with no plan B," she recalled. 

These days, space travel has its sights set on a much farther frontier: Mars. The last manned landing on the moon occurred in December 1972 as part of  Apollo 17, although NASA is hoping to change that, and Payette approves.

"There are things we can learn about the formation of the universe, the formation of the solar system. We could plant an array of telescopes on the side of the moon that we don't see from the Earth so that we can maybe peer even further into the universe.

"The moon has the advantage of always being nearby our Earth. A little far, but nearby."

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning


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