Question and Astronaut: Julie Payette

Julie Payette on being a female astronaut and a ‘space construction worker’, part of our series in conversation with Canadians who were once in space

Julie Payette, STS-127 mission specialist, attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, is pictured during a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)

Julie Payette, STS-127 mission specialist, attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, is pictured during a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)

Official ACES Suit Astronaut Portrait for Julie Payette. NASA/CSA

Julie Payette

Space missions

  • 1999: STS-96, nine days on Discovery
  • 2009: STS-127, 15 days on Endeavour

Q: What was your favourite part about being in space?

A: Seeing the Earth from above, the construction of the International Space Station, and weightlessness.

Q: And the scariest part about being in space?

A: I was a flight engineer on my second flight, which is the most senior position a non-American can have aboard the shuttle. We’re the cockpit crew. We fly the vehicle up to space, dock the vehicle to the space station, undock it at the end of the mission, and return it to the ground. As flight engineer, you’re right in the middle of the cockpit. These are very critical manoeuvres; we’re very focused at that time. We’re not scared, but we’re definitely very careful.

We were responsible for the robotics operation, so, when we’re not operating the vehicle, we’re operating the Canadarm. When you’re moving something on a multi-billion-dollar structure, with people on board who count on that structure for safety and integrity, a mistake is not an option. It’s an intense time.

Read more: Additional entries from our Question and Astronaut interview series

Q: Do you use the skills you gained in space?

A: Oh, a lot. Almost everything I do when I approach an operational problem comes from that time. It’s a way of organizing your thoughts. We use problem-solving; what we call “what-if-ing.” What if this happened? What would we do? We go over plan B, C, D, E, F, and whatever else, depending on the criticality of what we’re doing. This kind of thing can be applied almost everywhere, even at home.

Q: Did looking down on Earth change the way you view the world?

A: We get this question so much. People are hoping we’re going to say, “Yes.” I think it’s a myth. Most astronauts are very down-to-earth people. Many of us, three-quarters, have an engineering degree, and we have a very Cartesian, rational approach to things. You don’t go and get swept off your feet. That’s not your job and that’s not why you’re hired. So if you get so mesmerized that you forget to do what you’re supposed to do, whether it’s to open the cargo door of the space shuttle or configure something inside, then you should not be there as a professional operator.

When I saw the Earth from above, personally, as a spacecraft operator, it certainly reinforced and drove home the fact that there’s one place where we can live right now. The seven billion of us are sharing a wonderful planet, and it’s an absolute privilege to see it from above.

Q: What do you think about the individuals signing up for Mars One?

A: That project is a fraud. They’re not going to put anybody on Mars. They don’t even have a vehicle. Personally, I look at it as a marketing ploy, and a very effective one. They have no vehicle, no spaceship, no real plans to build anything and certainly no test program. It takes years to put out a new airplane. Look at the Bombardier C-series. How many years have we been testing this aircraft? And it’s not yet available. And you think that some company [that] specializes in reality TV can then build a unique spaceship to go for the first time ever, in the history of mankind, to another planet? Now, will we go explore? Absolutely. That’s what humans have been doing since we left the caves in Ethiopia. Why? Because this is part of our nature. We’re curious. We want to push the envelope. That will never stop. We will see people on Mars, hopefully in our lifetime. My hope is that the endeavour is so large, so complex, so technically challenging, so demanding and so uplifting, that it will be done with a consortium of nations. I hope the people who do set foot on Mars will do so for all mankind, and not just one nation in particular.

Q: How do you respond to those who don’t feel there’s a tangible return on Canada’s investment in space?

A: That’s the same argument you hear about basic research. There’s a bunch of people in a lab, and we don’t know if they’re going to come up with some discovery or not. Well, that’s why it’s called research. On the day a country decides not to invest a cent in innovation, discovery or exploration, that country decides to be a tributary to others.

Q: What most excites you about the future of space exploration?

payette1A: RosettaScreen Shot 2015-08-19 at 2.39.35 PM was amazing. Curiosity is still on Mars, digging, roving around. We have Voyager 1, which crossed into the part of space in between solar systems. That, to me, was an enormous milestone.

payette2And then, of course, in July, [we had the New Horizons] probe that was sent more than eight years ago to Pluto. At the time it was sent, Pluto was still a bona fide planet. Then there’s the James Webb space telescopeScreen Shot 2015-08-19 at 2.39.35 PM coming in 2018. One of the instruments on board is from Montreal. It’s going to be an extraordinarily powerful telescope that will make us see better, farther, in more detail, and, hopefully, will help us pinpoint more and more habitable planets that revolve around other stars.

Q: Tell us about the science and technology that you got to apply in space.

A: I participated in a heavy construction mission. I always call myself a space construction worker. We were only the second mission ever to go to the space station. There was nothing on board. We brought the first three tons of equipment, including some of the Imax camera stuff. We literally switched the light on to the station and walked in. It was an assembly mission.

On my second flight, I was the flight engineer, part of the cockpit crew, and we tend not to do the human side of the experiments, if it requires poking or probing. That’s because of the essential tasks we have to do on board.

Q: Did anything change your expectations of space?

A: There’s not much surprise in a planned space mission. The one thing we can’t really train for is weightlessness, real weightlessness. It’s a ton of fun. It’s pure Newtonian physics. You push in one direction, you go in the opposite direction with an equal force.

Q: Did Earth life seem lame once you got back home?

A: No, not at all. If anything, when you’re up there and you’re inside a space ship, which is your home, and without which you would not survive, you know that Earth is your home. This is the only place you can return. In fact we’re very meticulous. Part of our job is to maintain the spaceship. If we apply the same kind of model to Earth maybe we’d have a different outlook.

Q: Did being a woman in space affect your experience of being an astronaut?

payette3A: It’s like anything. When you’re a little different than others, it takes a little more time to fit in. If you really want to be there, there are no ingredients you need other than effort, perseverance and teamwork. On my first mission, there were seven of us on board. Three were women, which was a record. On my second mission, if you [count] the six people on the station, plus the seven people on the shuttle, out of the 13, I was the only girl. The prerequisite that people have a scientific or engineering degree or a medical degree limits the number of female astronautsScreen Shot 2015-08-19 at 2.39.35 PM. Right now, still, we have about 20 per cent of people who have that prerequisite who are female. So hey, girls: Embrace the very fun career of science and technology. Look at computer science. That’s what I did.

Q: What’s your favourite space movie?

A: I will name two, actually. The first one was such a revolution. I was 13 years old and I couldn’t even understand what they were saying, because my English was not that good, but it was Star Wars. And then Interstellar. When they launch the space vehicle, it’s feels like you’re on board. The science behind it is also interesting, because some of it is absolutely real astrophysics and orbital mechanics, some of it is theoretical physics, and some of it is completely Hollywood. When a science fiction movie is based on plausible science, it’s really good.

Q: How did space change you?

A: I think it’s the entire privilege I had to represent my country. It’s not the going to space alone; it’s to be part of that endeavour and to contribute a very small part to a very important step toward pushing the frontier. I really believe that, in 500 years, we will still remember the International Space Station, because it will have been the first time, really and truly, that nations put a lot of money, brains, resources, and effort together to build something peacefully, and to work together for the sole and unique purpose of furthering our knowledge and bringing it back to Earth for our mutual good.

Get to know the great unknowable. Read Maclean’s special Space issue, on physical newsstands this week and on Next Issue, Apple Newsstand and Google Play.



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