Payette returns to sounds and smell of space

Canadian astronaut Julie Payette spoke to the CBC's Alison Smith at the Johnson Space Center in Houston about her latest mission, the future of exploration and what a difference 10 years makes.

Canadian astronaut Julie Payette is set to orbit Earth with six crewmates aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, which is scheduled to launch June 13 on a visit to the International Space Station. It will be Payette's second trip to the station and her first in a decade. She recently spoke to the CBC's Alison Smith at the Johnson Space Center in Houston about spaceflight, then and now.

Q: It's been 10 years and you've lost none of your energy and none of your enthusiasm. What still fuels your passion after all this time?

A: The same as before: going to space. It's such a privilege.

Q: But 10 years is a long time to wait, isn't it?

A: Not really … We're just not sitting and doing nothing waiting for the next opportunity. We are integral to the process and a program right here on the ground. Most of the work is done on the ground. The actual space mission is the execution of years of planning. So, during the years when you're on the ground and your colleagues fly, you participate in the preparation, planning and execution of their mission but from the ground. That's what I did for several years. 

I was in Russia doing some work with hardware which is now in space, that I have not seen. The last time I saw this hardware was in Moscow and next time I'll see it is up in space … And then I spent several years as a Capcom, the voice of Houston talking to the astronauts in space or during simulation. And that also is a huge privilege.

Q: Much is made of the qualifications that astronauts bring to the job, whether it's your academic career.  What do you think is the real expertise that an astronaut brings?

A: We're really at the infancy of space exploration and we think we know it all, but its only been four decades that we're at it and barely at it to some extent … So that is why they're looking for specific qualifications in science or engineering or medical field, and also specific qualifications in being able to get a job done in an operational setting.

But when it comes time to pick astronauts at this stage of the game, when there's very few and where there's a complex machine behind them, I think that you absolutely need to have somebody that is a team player, that will function well on a team, that is willing to sacrifice some of his or her personal goals because the stakes are higher than [one] little person. And that's OK, because it is … because one day we'd like, as a species, to go to another planet.

Q: Do you think you'll get to go?

A: I don't think so. I think that's too far away. I think it's a few decades away. But I believe I should be alive when it happens and I'll be riveted to my television screen or whatever else we have at the time to watch the news.  

Q: When you think about the job that you have ahead of you for this particular mission, what's critical for you?

A: Not to make a mistake. There's one thing I tell myself every day, and I think my colleagues are the same. We call it the fighter pilot prayer — or the astronaut prayer. It's non-repeatable on a TV interview, [but it's similar to] "let me not mess up."

It's so important that everyone on the team makes their contribution and do it as well as possible. We have very little room for errors. Big errors: definitely not. Small errors? We all make them.  And that's OK. We know if you flick the wrong switch to power up a camera, that's OK — you can power up the other camera and life's not going to fall apart. But that's not true for an onboard computer … There's a few things I really have to accomplish properly and not make mistakes.  Especially when we are operating [the] robot arm, the Canadarm 2 particularly, close to structure of the station. We're talking here a few inches. This is a time when I'll be double [concentrating].

Q: You've said in the past that astronauts don't have a wide range of emotions. That probably gets you through those two-inch spaces. But what were you really driving at?

A: Well, I think they do have emotion. But like many people in an operational world, I find a lot of similarities between the job of an astronaut and a first time responder — for example, a policeman, a firefighter, coast guards, people in the military. People with an affinity for "You have a job to do now."  And you have to have to accomplish it properly. You have to land the airplane … And you have to do it now. And then afterwards, you can delay your reaction. Because we all have reactions. We're all human and we all like to tell a story afterwards or have some feedback or hindsight on the story. But when it's time to do it, then it's time to do it. It's not time to be emotional.

Like a lot of people ask, "How do you feel the first time the doors of [the] space shuttle cargo bay open up and you see the Earth?" And you're like, "I don't know, I'm thinking about that bit that needs to flip on my computer [so] that I know for sure that the motors are driving well for the doors." That's what I'm thinking about because I need to react immediately if the motors for the doors are not driving well. That's my job. Then afterwards I'll think about how beautiful things are.

Q: A lot has happened since that first mission. There was the Columbia mission where you lost friends and colleagues. You've got children now. How does that change your approach to what is a dangerous job, but an adventure?

A: The Columbia accident is a reminder that this is not just business as usual just yet. That we are still quite early in our ability to explore space and utilize space efficiently, easily and safely. It is extraordinarily safe from our point of view. We know the teams and people that work behind it.

But it is still risky to extricate yourself from the gravity of Earth in a rocket of some sort — a controlled bomb, to some extent. Because it takes so much energy to fight the gravitational pull.  For us it's quite normal and it's part of life. We practice that in the simulator ….

The other dimension, though, is having extra people to share it with, and in my case, additional small members of my family. One of the things I do now whenever we go in the simulator for many hours at a time — when we don't get out — we're provided with space food, the rehydratable little squares of food … most of the time at the end, there's too many of those packages so I bring some home. And I have my five-year old, who gets absolutely so excited when I open the package, put a bit of water and into the microwave and he eats out of the package. It's part of the fun of being a human being going into the frontier of what we know of the known world and then still having the basic needs that everybody else has. We need to sleep, we need to eat, we need to put clothes on and so on and so forth and that is also the good part of the story.

Q: So you can see a bit of the wonder, I guess, through your children's eyes …

A: Yeah, but not about astronauts, they don't care about astronauts. For them everybody around is a pilot or an astronaut, so … hockey player or a baseball player or rock star that's OK, but astronauts [are] not really interesting.

But what is interesting is more the wonder about the basic stuff that they really care about. The fact that we're going to install a scientific platform to expose experiments to the vacuum of space on long periods? At this very stage of the game, that' s not what interests my five-year-old.

Q: Critics suggest that the shuttle program has outlived its usefulness, that we should be thinking about other ways of exploring the frontiers that are out there. How do you answer them?

A: I'd say, "How? How are you going to get to the frontier? Without a rocket, a spacecraft and engine of some sort?" As you know, the shuttle program is … to be terminated in October 2010, or at least the last mission that's going to be funded by the American government. It's a decision of the American government that owns [the] American space shuttle. When they do that, at that time, it will be the only spacecraft that has every existed and currently exists that is able to carry payload into space and return large payloads from space. So that capability … will be lost for now. 

So if we ever think that we know everything and that we will never need to carry back something back from Earth, from space, we're kidding ourselves. Of course, it will happen again. And there will be another cargo ship. It might not be of the same design as the space shuttle but as we continue expanding, as we start exploring and utilizing near-Earth orbit and eventually setting up a colony on the moon, we'll need cargo ships. And this is the first prototype. It will be hailed 500 years from now as being the first airplane or starplane of its time. Today, clearly we wouldn't fly the Wright brothers' [aircraft] for 10 metres, but it's still very significant.

Q: We're obviously here interviewing you because of the program but also because you're Canadian.  Why is this important for Canada?

A: Oh, it's tremendously important for our ability to continue to be a partner in a big international endeavour. It's our ability also to, within our means, within our size of population and budget decisions, to be at the forefront of technology, of discovery, of innovation. I think it is fundamentally important also as a nation to say, "Hey, we can be good at what we do at home and we can be good at what we do outside." We are true partners and with that.

But we also provide ambition and interest and desire, and goals and dreams [to] our young people. That if you grow up in Canada you can do all kinds of great things, including going to space or including participating in a space program, even if it means representing your country in another country. It's extremely inspiring for young people when they start choosing what they're going to choose at school. That's what I did. That's why I'm here.

Q: You told me that you can smell space.  What's that like?

A: Let me put it in context. On my first mission I was the spacewalk supervisor: the person that runs the spacewalk from inside the vehicle. As such I was the one that closed the hatch when my colleagues left to work outside for six hours. And I was also the person who opens the hatch when they come back and we repressurize. 

And at the time that I opened the hatch — six hours after the space walk — this entire airlock area had been exposed to the vacuum of space for all those hours. So when I opened the door I smelled what was kind of an antiseptic smell.  It was cold, coldish, antiseptic — neutral.  It was not detergent but it was definitely like a hospital-smell type and I thought, "Wow, that's the smell of space." The more I thought about it, I thought: "Wow, this is what nothing smells like, because there's probably nothing left in there, not a single microbe or anything."

Q: Do you ever get to experience the silence?

A: No, actually silence is not good. We don't like silence. We have fans that circulate air in the cabin of the module of the space shuttle. They're running all the time. They're absolutely necessary because otherwise you will breathe your own CO2 and intoxicate yourself quite fast. Those fans are [running] in the background all the time. When you don't hear them is when you worry about them. So, it's not quiet. Never. The most quiet is when you put your earphones on.  It's a lot of people in a very small area.

Q: As you think about leaving this next time, has any of the sense of awe or wonder changed about what you're going to see?

A: If not, it's increased. I really feel like, on my first mission, the first mission is when you prove yourself and hopefully deserve the privilege to continue as an astronaut and remain in the corps and get granted an opportunity for a second mission. That's where I am.

I think I'm going to have more time, this time to look out the window now and then. I'll take a bit more time to do that. To contemplate the beautiful planet we have. I think I'm also going to spend a bit more time in trying to take it in and document what I see so I can share it better than my first time around. I will definitely pick out cameras also, to give a tour of what it looks like. I did that on my first mission also but I didn't have much time either. It's about sharing this moment. 

I'm very lucky that I saw the space station 10 years ago when … there was nobody on board. Only two modules [and] we had to put the lights on when we got there. We were only the second crew to ever get there.

And now I'm at the very end of the construction phase, when the station is complete. It's the size of two football fields, and there's going to be six people on board including a Canadian, Bob Thirsk, so I will definitely try to soak it in and then bring as many memories back [as I can], to share with people.