Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques is about halfway through his six-month mission aboard the International Space Station on Expedition 58/59. During this, his first space mission, which blasted off on Dec. 3, 2018, he’s conducting scientific experiments, health tests, robotics tasks, and testing new technologies. He’s also taking part in a project called Exploring Earth, an educational initiative that aims to encourage students and the public to learn about the science of Earth, its natural processes and landforms from space, as well as the impact that humans are having on the planet. Saint-Jacques spoke exclusively with Canadian Geographic from space recently about what’s surprised him, delighted him and changed his perspectives about Earth.
On the most surprising thing about living in space
The first thing that completely amazed me was the Soyuz rocket. It was night, and I saw my first sunrise in orbit through the window. Seeing the curve of the Earth, the blue line of the horizon, it filled me with incredible emotion. After that, another incredible moment on board the ISS was meeting the human beings who had been living off the planet aboard this space station, orbiting around the Earth for several months. I knew it in theory, but it still really impressed me.
On how being in space changed or altered his perspective on protecting Earth’s natural systems
Looking at our blue planet, I have this never-ending sense of awe. The thin blue line of the atmosphere, the colour, the flash of blue, it is just unbelievable. To be able to see the whole Earth and get a feeling for the size of it, it is very moving. It is very humbling. And it makes you want to go back to Earth and help make it better.
On how space travel took an unexpected toll on his body
It took several weeks for my body to adjust to the absence of gravity. We trained for years around the globe to prepare for this situation, but it’s still hard to adjust. At first, I had headaches, congestion and I was feeling disoriented all the time. I also felt disoriented in time since it’s not a typical clockwork schedule up here. In space, every hour-and-a-half is a new sunrise on Earth. But after a few weeks I felt really comfortable, like as if I was born in space!
On Canadian medical technology being testing onboard the ISS
We are conducting more than 100 science experiences. Aboard the ISS, astronauts are actually more like technicians, executing experiments and collecting data. The scientists on the ground are the ones leading most of the research. Therefore, it’s hard to see immediate results. But it’s exactly the purpose of our presence here; to help conduct long-term research in a great variety of scientific fields. The Canadian research is mainly in health science, which of course is really fascinating for me since I’m trained as a physician. We are also testing technologies for medicine in remote places like space or the Arctic, where my wife and I have both practiced medicine.
On what he wishes he’d brought with him and what he misses about Earth
The people that I love. I wish I could bring them all. I would also say I miss swimming in the water. I miss diving in the ocean.
On his favourite part of each day
My favourite part of the day is the morning, when I wake up and I get to open the cupola and see our planet for the first time of the day. It amazes me each time, it is really moving and makes all these years of training and hard work worth it.
On how travelling to space changed his understanding of what it means to be an explorer
It is a very humbling privilege to be here. Very few people have had that chance to see these views on behalf of humanity, and I take this very seriously; the responsibility to absorb this and retransmit it the best I can. I think exploration is in our hearts. This desire to always take another step forward, starting from, metaphorically, the day when we left the caves and then explored the plains and climbed mountains, then we went across the oceans and flew in the air. And now, those steps are taking us away from Earth itself. And so I think the quest to explore is at the heart of humanity; to constantly go further and broaden our perspective, to really understand the world, and the universe around us. And, that is perhaps, in my mind, the most important aspect of space exploration, the legacy of space flights.