MONTREAL – Five years after her final flight, retired astronaut Julie Payette admits she had doubts she would ever fly as she watched the Americans send astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
She faced several obstacles on the road to fulfilling her dream of someday putting on a space suit and flying in a rocket.
“When I grew up and I was nine years old in Montreal, I was a girl, they were men, I was Canadian, they were American,” Payette, 50, told a recent panel that included several international female astronauts.
Payette travelled into space twice during her more than 20 years as an astronaut before retiring last year. She is currently CEO of the Montreal Science Centre.
She was only one of two women in the Canadian astronaut corps. The other was neurologist Roberta Bondar, who spent eight days on the U.S. space shuttle Discovery in January 1992.
Payette noted that of the 500 humans who have flown in space, only 57 have been women, with just 12 of those coming from countries other than the United States.
But she said her family never discouraged her from pursuing her dream.
“Nobody in my family had ever been near an airplane, let alone inside one — and they spoke English — I spoke zero of that language,” she added.
“I was very lucky, despite those disadvantages, to be born in a family that did not discourage me.”
Payette said the hardest part while pursuing her career was convincing people she could handle the challenges.
“It just took a lot more time to convince (people) that you were there to do just as competent a job,” she said.
“But the good thing about it is that with perseverance, hard work, humility and a lot of help from a lot of folks, you can always make it.”
Payette finally found the Earth at her feet 15 years ago when she flew for the first time, on Discovery.
In so doing, she became the first Canadian astronaut to take part in a mission to assemble the International Space Station and to board it.
Her second and final trip into space was to the station in July 2009.
When the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour docked to the space station, it brought together a record 13 astronauts representing five different nationalities.
Payette was the only woman among the crew.
“Seven people on board the shuttle, with me and six American gentlemen, and on board the space station were six gentlemen,” she noted.
Among them was another former Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, who was on an extended six-month mission. Payette’s visit marked the first time two Canadians had been in space at the same time.
NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, who spent part of her training in Canada, says a lot has changed for women in the space industry.
“Even, 10 or 15 years ago, the number of female engineers at the Canadian Space Agency was very small and it has changed . . . it has changed everywhere,” she said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Walker said the number of women at NASA has increased since she first started working there in 1987.
She described NASA as a reflection of society “so as women progressed in society, women progressed at NASA as well.”
“More women went into engineering and science fields in universities and so there were more women available to apply for a job,” she said.
Walker spent five months on the space station in 2010.
During its most recent selection of astronauts last year, NASA picked four men and four women. There were 6,113 applications — 1,355 women and 4,758 men.
While women astronauts have become accepted in North America, that does not appear to be the case in South Korea.
When Soyeon Yi was picked to be South Korea’s first astronaut, she said it came as a surprise because, even in the government, many expected a man would be chosen.
“All the powerful people, they believe a guy is always better than a woman,” she said recently. “That kind of culture we still have.”
She said the situation was worse while she was training in Russia for her 10-day mission to the space station in 2008.
“It wasn’t easy to accept me,” Yi said. “I could feel it, I could read their faces — especially soldiers who didn’t have enough education and enough experience working with women.”