Last July, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette rode a rocket as the flight engineer on the space shuttle Endeavour. The 16-day mission was her second trip to the International Space Station. Before leaving, Ms. Payette tucked her younger son’s drawing of the rocket and their house and a tree (so she would remember, he told her) into her spacesuit and displayed it on her clothes locker in space.
Space-flight risks, she says, are something that those in the aerospace business talk about all the time.
“It’s what we call ‘iffing,’” says Ms. Payette. “What if we lose an engine here? It’s that kind of question. Having a plan B and a plan C is very much part of the culture and mentality.”
Astronauts know very well that space is a harsh environment where there’s no air pressure, huge differences in temperature, radiation and a fair amount of dangerous micro-meteorites, she says, but it’s an environment they understand.
“If you have children and you go in space in a rocket, people ask you, ‘Aren’t you taking too many unnecessary risks for your family?’” says Ms. Payette. “The answer to me is no. If I cross the street, there’s a probability I could be hit by a car. There’s a probability I could not come back from a space mission. But the legacy I would leave my children by having embarked on this space mission will be something they can bank on.”
Ms. Payette, 46, first boarded the space station in 1999, becoming the first Canadian to participate in an International Space Station assembly mission. The athletic Quebec native, who is also a pianist and soprano soloist who has performed with the Montreal Symphony, is the second Canadian woman to fly in outer space.
Ms. Payette, who dreamed of driving the space buggy after watching the Apollo moon missions at her Montreal primary school, realized as she grew up that her chances of achieving that dream were slim. She had none of the characteristics of the Apollo astronauts who were “American, military test pilots and spoke English.”
But every single time she chose a path, such as engineering at school (she holds a Master of Applied Science in computer engineering from the University of Toronto) and afterward for work – research in computer systems, natural language processing and automatic speech recognition – a space career was always in the back of her mind. When the Canadian Space Agency recruited for the second time in its history in 1992, she applied and was one of four chosen from 5,330 applicants to become astronauts.
Leadership skills and a strong sense of teamwork are critical characteristics, and being a bit of a jack-of-all-trades helps, says Ms. Payette, who is fluent not only in French and English but can chat in Spanish, Italian, Russian and German.
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Clearly, the field is competitive, says Ms. Payette, but after people have been put together and assigned their respective responsibilities on a flight, everyone works as a team.
“That’s what makes the difference between a successful and a non-successful mission in many cases – that gel between the crew,” says Ms. Payette. “In a spacecraft, you’re everything – you’re the operator, the space flyer, the construction worker, the cook, the cleaning person, the photographer, videographer, the space robotics operator and the space walker because there are only a few of us there.”
Stress is a constant factor on short, high-intensity space missions.
“It’s so intense that adrenalin flows from the very beginning to end,” says Ms. Payette. “The one thing that astronauts are really afraid of is to make a mistake, to do something onboard that would either jeopardize the mission, or worse, jeopardize the vehicle and the crew. It’s something you think about all the time.”
The way space crews minimize mistakes is by always working in pairs so they can cross check each other.
“When you’re moving a piece of equipment, you don’t want to become the famous person who will be the first to collide this piece of equipment with the space station, so you are very careful,” says Ms. Payette, who successfully manipulated the robotic arms, including the Canadarm, on both her missions. “I don’t think there’s ever a time when there’s no stress. We manage to sleep very well but we are functioning on adrenalin.”
Activities outside of work, such as riding bikes or going to the pool with the kids, are absolutely paramount for relaxing.
“We are a family that’s quite active,” says Ms. Payette. “We like sports, especially winter sports, so we come back to Canada as much as we can to ski, skate and build snowmen. Even staying home with your children in PJs in the morning is very de-stressing.”
Ms. Payette has been awarded numerous honours, most recently a Doctor of Science (DSc) honorary degree from York University, where she spoke to graduating students about daring to dream.
“I say to young people, find out what makes you tick, what your passion is inside and work at it, because that’s probably the right thing,” says Ms. Payette. “We all have something that for some reason makes us really happy. To me, it was flying.”