Our Eye in the Sky

From here to the stars: astronaut Julie Payette offers a unique perspective

By Jason Santerre

Last December, astronaut Chris Hadfield took off for the International Space Station and during his five-month mission among the stars, he kept the world updated via a kind of diary on Facebook: One small step for social media, one giant leap for NASA into modern times. Over a decade earlier, and six years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, Montreal’s Julie Payette travelled six million kilometres and orbited Earth 153 times to make her own kind of history.

In 1999, Ms. Payette was aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and became only the second Canadian woman to enter outer space. During the mission, she oversaw the first manual docking of the shuttle to the International Space Station and, in so doing, had the distinction of becoming the first Canadian to step aboard the ISS. The international crew’s mission was to deliver four tons of equipment, consisting of everything from computers to medical equipment. Ms. Payette was at the controls of all ISS systems, supervised the space walk and operated the Canadarm— all in a day’s work!

“Going to space is a remarkable experience,” says Ms. Payette, looking back. She says it would be wonderful if everyone could see their home planet from such a vantage point. “To witness our blue marble against a backdrop of blackness is to put everything in perspective, like: That’s it! That’s all we’ve got.”

That kind of privileged perspective affected her in many ways. She knew that once she returned to Earth, she could focus her energy on raising awareness about the environment. Today, her main platform is ArcticNet, a research consortium made up of over 140 researchers from 30 universities. Individually, each researcher offers a unique area of expertise; collectively, the group works at better understanding humanity’s impact on the North. Much research is done aboard the Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that is commissioned by ArcticNet scientists from May to December.

“We know things are dire and that action must be taken sooner rather than later, but it’s a science-based organization, not a doomsday organization,” says Ms. Payette of ArcticNet. “We just know that we’re moving closer to the unknown, so that’s why gathering and analyzing as much data as possible is essential. Earth was spinning without us for 45 billion years and it will keep spinning if ever we go extinct as a species. But to deny that we’re having an impact on our environment is not the way to move forward.”

Although Ms. Payette’s last space mission was in 2009, she is still very much involved with the Canadian Space Agency. “I am a career astronaut,” she says, although she admits that she does wear many hats: mother, jet pilot, accomplished singer, and speaker of six languages. Still, there’s no denying that she will always be referred to as ‘the astronaut.’

“My colleagues and I use that sort of interest and curiosity in what we do to our advantage. We use this to encourage the many, many young people we meet at schools. We want to help them go after their dreams, so we tell them the truth, that they must work hard, stay in school, and to look at science and technology as a great platform to affect change. And that goes double for young girls.”

A generation ago, when young girls were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, they might have answered with ballet dancer, nurse or schoolteacher. So what if, today, girls dream of becoming a doctor, a scientist or even an astronaut? “No one should ever doubt them,” says Ms. Payette, a woman who is living proof that dreams come true.

So it’s interesting to imagine what a very young Julie Payette would think if she knew a well-trained and determined adult Julie Payette would one day sit among six other astronauts in the cockpit of a Space Shuttle aimed at the galaxy above. What goes through one’s mind as mission control counts down? 10, 9, 8, 7 . . .

“I was thinking of my family,” recalls Ms. Payette. “We are trained to be focused, calm. And I remember that, as a crew, we were very calm, believe it or not. Fear is not a prevalent thought. But I did think of my parents and my friends, all the people who had supported me and who had driven down to Florida for the big launch. I thought: ‘I hope we go so they get to see this incredible lift off.’”

Julie Payette was appointed director of the Montreal Science Centre
The Montreal Science Centre, an interactive museum dedicated to science and technology located in the Old Port of Montreal, welcomes over 700,000 visitors per year.

Summer 2013, Vol 5 N°3

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