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Quebec’s Rocket Man

David Saint-Jacques speaks family, education and adventure

By Sabrina Jonas

In 1972, the year Apollo 16 sent men to the moon for the fifth time, renowned British singer Elton John recorded the infamous space song, “Rocket Man”. The lyrics tell a story of an astronaut’s ambivalence toward leaving his family to embark on a mission to space. While in orbit, the lonely space man misses his wife and can’t wait to get back to Earth to be with her. They say life imitates art; and no other man reflects the complexities of this internal tug-of-war better than Canadian Space Agency astronaut, David Saint-Jacques.

“Leaving my family was the biggest challenge of the mission,” says husband and father of three, looking back.

Saint-Jacques, 49, flew to the International Space Station on Soyuz MS-11 in December 2018. While in space, he made history by becoming the fourth CSA astronaut to conduct a spacewalk and the first Canadian astronaut to use the Canadarm2 robot arm to perform a “cosmic catch”. He also performed Canadian and international science experiments and technology demonstrations and returned safely to Earth in June of this summer. All in a day’s work!

At 204 days living and working on the ISS, Saint-Jacques set the record for longest Canadian mission to date. But amid 3264 orbits around the Earth and over 139 million kilometers travelled, he never lost touch with his family and truly redefined the meaning of a long-distance relationship.

“Even though he is everyone else’s astronaut, he will always be my husband. I am proud of him as a person, I am happy that he got to follow his dream that he had, but I am mostly proud that he keeps that connection alive with the children, with me,” said Saint-Jacques’ wife to Global News, four months into her husband’s mission.

He called them every day; he opened Christmas presents with them via iPad; he partook in “waffle Saturdays” every week, rejuvenating the Canadian in him with each syrupy bite. Add “best dad” to his list of records.

Although his vestibular system has gone through a mission of its own, Saint-Jacques learned to maintain this balance between education, family and adventure many moons ago. “I spent a lot of my youth travelling with my parents and constantly being challenged by them to read and learn more about everything.” Born in Quebec City and raised in Montreal by a professor of physics father and a teacher of history and literature mother, education took precedence and eventually passion in young Saint-Jacques’ life.

“I started out studying engineering, like my father and my grandfather before me, and I worked a couple of years as an engineer.” He earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from Polytechnique Montréal, but that didn’t satiate the adventurer inside him.The generalist moved on to earn his MD from Université Laval and completed his family medicine residency at McGill University.

His desire for exploration, his focus and dedication translated into a recruitment to the CSA in 2009 and his first solo mission to space 10 years later. And though the journey to space by rocket is only 10 minutes or so, the physical, educational and emotional training involved in becoming an astronaut is lightyears longer. No wonder Saint-Jacques’ motto is, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”

“One of the guiding principles of my life has always been to broaden my horizons, to expand my understanding and to maybe be able to then turn around and teach what I understand to the younger people. I think, as an astronaut, I have this chance to broaden my horizons to the whole planet, and that’s really what I’m looking forward to. And having that consciousness practically in my soul of what the world looks like seen from outside — I think that will help me better understand who we are as humans and the way we should lead our lives,” he says.

So, with his launch to space came another launch with him in the driver’s seat: “Exploring Earth,” a web-based education initiative using photos he’s taken from space during his mission. The project involves both Saint-Jacques and fellow Canadian astronaut Dr. Roberta Bondar to tell the story of our planet and ongoing human impacts on the environment.

“I really want to share this unique perspective with students and Canadians. Through my photos, I want them to develop an interest in understanding how our planet works, and I hope this knowledge will give us all the urge to better protect it,” says Saint-Jacques of Exploring Earth. With this, Saint-Jacques named his mission, Perspective. His unique vantage point of our planet, seen clearly during his spacewalk, resonated with his self-understanding and that of humanity.

“I was thinking of our planet and our civilization. You think ‘one human is tiny, but the reach of the human soul is huge.’ Here I am, representing humanity; wearing this suit that’s keeping me alive, that’s the product of the imagination of people on the ground. Doing a spacewalk that’s been designed by people on the ground. It makes you feel like you’re part of this huge, powerful, beautiful force, which is human imagination, human collaboration. I didn’t feel tiny at all, I felt like I was part of something immense,” he tells Global News.

Saint-Jacques is a product of dreaming big, working hard and shooting for the stars. And as accomplished as he is, his greatest achievement is raising his three children and being a good husband. “This balancing act is made possible thanks to [my wife’s] energy, her creativity and her sense of humour. I am nourished by my family life — it keeps my feet on the ground!”

 

Fall 2019, Vol 11 N°4

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Fall 2019
Vol 11 N°4

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