David Saint-Jacques ready for 'ultimate trek' into space
Canada's next astronaut talks about the challenges of training and looking forward to seeing home from space
Next November, David Saint-Jacques will have a whole new perspective on the world — he will be floating 400 kilometres above Earth aboard the International Space Station.
Saint-Jacques is Canada's next astronaut, a family doctor raised in Saint-Lambert, Que., who will be performing many experiments on board the floating laboratory.
He's pretty well qualified for the role. In addition to his medical degree from Université Laval in Quebec City, Saint-Jacques has degrees in engineering and astrophysics. He also holds a commercial pilot's licence.
We asked the father of three a few questions about what it's like knowing he will be one of the few humans to leave Earth, and what it's like following in the footsteps of the enormously popular Chris Hadfield.
The interview has been edited for brevity.
Are you excited knowing you're Canada's next astronaut?
I'm focused more than excited. I'll be excited in a year. I was excited a year ago for a few minutes and then I realized the magnitude of the task ahead and the magnitude of the personal challenge … because it takes a long time to become an astronaut and you're stepping into some big shoes. There were giants there before me, so that was all very sobering and humbling. And then I got down to work.
It's perfect. It's breathing. It's fragile. It's our only home in the cosmos, and we are responsible for it.- David Saint-Jacques
I'm about a year into training already, with about a year to go. I'm like a mountain climber halfway up Everest: Far from base camp, far from the summit, and I have to stay focused.
What are you looking forward to?
This is a huge opportunity, a huge privilege to do this on behalf of all Canadians, to leave planet Earth to go live on our spaceship. Humanity's spaceship, our outpost in the cosmos, is just a great dream that — touch wood — will come true one day if all goes well.
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What I'm really looking forward to might sound paradoxical: it's when I'm finally in orbit and I can turn around and look back at Earth.
Spending all that time and energy and effort to leave Earth, but the first thing we want to do, of course, is look back at our home and finally get a real gut feeling for what it is … This is reality. This beautiful ball floating on the black velvet background of space. It's perfect. It's breathing. It's fragile. It's our only home in the cosmos, and we are responsible for it.
What has been the hardest thing so far?
It's a juggling act. If you want to stay at your best, you've got to stay in balance … It's not only the job: it's the family, it's the friends, it's my parents. I have to make sure I remain in balance, I remain who I am. And that's the only way I can be my best as an astronaut.
It's a life of constant international travel; I'm constantly jet-lagged; I'm constantly under examination; I'm constantly learning new stuff.
What's it been like on your family?
My family lives in Houston. That's where the kids were born. That's where I spend a little bit less than half my time. The rest of the time I'm in Moscow learning how to fly the Soyuz rocket; I'm in Japan learning about the Japanese segment of the space station; I'm in Europe learning about the European segment of the space station; and in Canada, learning robotics and various science experiments we're going to be doing.
My family comes to visit me. But my wife and I have a good routine. It's a bit of a challenge, but every challenge has its opportunity, and it's making us better people, I think.
One of the big challenges in training for this mission is that my wife has her own career to pursue, but now with the added responsibility of me being absent most of the time. When I return it's often more upsetting, it seems, to the household balance. But this is an effect some of my military colleagues told me to expect, and other astronauts.
There are other things. I'm looking forward to the teamwork experience. It is a great expedition … This is the ultimate trek. This is the ultimate adventure with amazing people I'm training with.
And then there's all the experiments we'll be doing … that I can tell will have great benefits for everybody back on Earth.
Is it hard to follow Chris Hadfield?
His outreach legacy is enormous. What he managed to do is welcome everybody on board. He managed to make it accessible. He was one of the first to take the risk of being himself, and shedding the superhero persona. That is very inspirational to me. We all have our personalities and that's one of the lessons I learned from Chris — it's OK to be yourself. We all enjoy our missions and all derive personal, thoughtful, philosophical benefit from it in different ways and we owe it to the world. We can't hoard that experience. You've got to share it.
Do we take space for granted?
Knowledge about the Earth comes from space. That's how we manage our agriculture, our defence. It's how we manage emergencies; it's how we use our map; how we navigate; how we know the weather. It's all coming from space, but we don't realize it. I remember once I was filling up my car at the gas station and I wanted to pay at the pump. It wouldn't take my card. It wouldn't work. So I had to go pay cash inside. Then I heard on the news that because of a software glitch on a satellite, the entire Interac was down for an hour.
We're a victim of our success and the space station is part of that. The space station is unbelievable. It's like science fiction. It's the most complex thing that humans have ever built. That in and of itself is a miracle. But it's a miracle of collaboration. It was built by 16 nations. The four biggest countries are the U.S., Russia, Japan and Germany. If you know anything about 20th century history, it's amazing that these four countries are collaborating completely openly on this beautiful common project.
There have been people living off the planet for over 15 years. We already have a colony outside Earth. We are learning a lot about ourselves, about our planet. And we're learning about how to live in space for longer durations in this pursuit of this crazy dream of flying to Mars.
Canadians have so many reasons to be proud of our contributions to our space program. We are part of that club of nations that are pushing the boundaries of humanity.
Metaphorically, we used to live in caves … Then someone thought, 'Hey, let's go see what's outside.' Then we wanted to have a look up on mountains and at the other valley on the other side and across forests. We just want to have a look at the beach. Have a look at the ocean. Have a look up in the air …. And now that's where we are. Let's just go have a look at space. Not only is it part of the human soul, it's what makes us grow as a species.