Julie Payette doesn’t expect future generations to remember individual astronauts who assembled the International Space Station.
But the 48-year-old Canadian astronaut, who logged 611 hours in space contributing to the mission, believes the engineering feat will go down in the history books.
“It’s extremely humbling at times and it’s an extraordinary opportunity to contribute very slightly to a fantastic endeavour,” said Payette, the Canadian Space Agency’s former chief astronaut.
“(It’s) one of the most important things that human beings have done … to construct in one of the harshest environments possible, outer space, for the sole purpose of advancing knowledge in a completely peaceful manner.”
Payette, an electrical engineer and native of Montreal, was the first Canadian to board the International Space Station in 1999 during NASA’s second flight to the station on the spacecraft Discovery.
After seven years as the CSA’s top astronaut and a decade after her first flight, Payette boarded the space shuttle Endeavour on its 29th mission to the space station. On that flight, Payette served as the flight engineer, the most senior position a non-American can obtain on a space shuttle.
She was one of two Canadians and the only woman aboard.
“After a while, characteristics like nationality, mother tongue or gender become very secondary,” Payette said in an interview from Washington D.C.
“Other people expect you to do your job. If you do it well and with competence and you’re reliable, those little differences are secondary.”
While the shuttle was docked to the ISS, Payette operated three robotic arms, alongside a record 12 other astronauts from five different nations.
“People work as a team,” she added. “That’s the beauty of it. They do not stop at these kinds of details. If we brought back some of those lessons to Earth a little bit more, it could be useful.”
Despite her commitment to education and physical determination, Payette sees experiencing life inside a spacecraft not so much as a personal accomplishment but more a professional duty she has been hired and trained to execute.
But she also admits it’s the best job in the world.
“To ride a rocket is an amazing ride. To go around the Earth at 28,000 kilometres an hour, circling once every hour and a half – to see how beautiful our planet is, is a huge privilege. Then there’s weightlessness. It’s actually quite comfortable and a lot of fun to float.”
In those moments of relaxation, Payette added to the experience by packing music from a range of Canadian artists – from Celine Dion on her first flight, to B.C.’s Theory of Deadman on her second – as a to tribute to the people she represents.
“It’s very peaceful to float to a window and see the Earth passing by below. … It’s the only place we have right now. More than seven billion of us share this one planet and at this moment there’s nowhere else we can go.
“It’s our common spaceship. Astronauts are trying to take meticulous care of their spaceship because it is what keeps them alive in the harshness of space. Well so is Earth, for all of us.”
Payette will share experiences from her space flights during The Earth from Above: An Astronaut’s Perspective at 7 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 27 in the University of Victoria’s Farquhar Auditorium.
All seats to the free lecture are currently reserved, though more may be released through the box office at 250-721-8480.