Exploration

David Saint-Jacques

Episode 11

The Canadian Space Agency astronaut on the Zen-like experience of living in orbit, his groundbreaking spacewalk, and the low-tech way he knew he’d made it to space

  • Apr 16, 2020
Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques records an episode of Explore with host David McGuffin.
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Astronaut David Saint-Jacques knows a thing or two about isolation.

A year ago, before the world was in pandemic lockdown, Saint-Jacques was mid-way through a 204-day mission on the International Space Station, in orbit around the earth with two other colleagues, American astronaut Anne McClain and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.

Saint-Jacques says he enjoyed the experience, and even found it monastic and Zen-like.

“We did a lot experiments, a lot of maintenance tasks. But every day was like you are just trying to do the same thing a bit better,” he said. “Every day you wake up, here is your schedule, talk to the ground, talk to the scientists, talk to the engineers, the controllers, gather equipment, do an experiment, repair something that is broken, exercise, talk to your family, look at the earth, rinse and repeat, for months and months. And you get very good at it. It’s very gratifying, that experience.”

As well as being an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency, the 50-year-old Quebec native is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, a medical doctor, astrophysicist, engineer, licensed pilot, and married father of three children.

He says there were many memorable experiences during his mission, and recalls a funny detail about the moment they left Earth’s atmosphere and entered space, minutes after lifting off on board the Russian Soyuz launch craft.

“The Russians have this fun tradition: the crew brings stuffed animals,” he recalls. “I brought a stuffed raccoon that all my kids played with and this stuffed animal is hanging at the end of a string. So, as you’re riding the rocket up, the string is really taut. And when you reach orbit, it starts to float. It’s the lowest-tech-possible Zero-G indicator: a stuffed animal on string. High five! We made it to space.”

“A human being is really small, compared to the Earth, compared to the universe. But the reach of the human imagination, the reach of the human soul, the possibilities of collaboration and creativity — that has incredible reach.”

During his mission, Saint-Jacques also became the fourth Canadian to go on a spacewalk, and the first in a dozen years.

While outside the Space Station, there was a technical glitch with one of the pieces of equipment that Saint-Jacques was meant to install, so he had a few minutes free, floating in space, while ground-control in Houston sorted that out.

“Looking at the Earth, I thought, ‘Wow, how big is a human?’ A human being is really small, compared to the Earth, compared to the universe; it’s impossible to even see a human being. But the reach of the human imagination, the reach of the human soul, the possibilities of collaboration and creativity — that has incredible reach. And there I was in orbit, the embodiment of that imagination. I really felt I was part of something immense and that there is nothing we cannot do.”

Saint-Jacques credits his love for exploration and adventure to time spent as a child in the woods around his family’s country home in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

“There is something Zen about it,” Saint-Jacques says of the silence of the forest under snow. “You’re in a little bubble; you hear your own breathing. There are huge parallels with that environment and the spacewalk that I had a chance to do. I think in a way I spent a lot of energy trying to recreate that feeling that I had in the woods, discovering a little piece of beautiful Canada.”

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