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Canada’s Chief Astronaut Julie Payette

by Patricia Enborg | March 9, 2007

CSA Astronaut Julie Payette, mission specialist on STS-96, holds a camera on the aft flight deck of Discovery as the crew performs the first docking to the International Space Station.

Remember those grainy television pictures of the astronauts walking on the moon? Julie Payette does. Canada’s chief astronaut was only nine years old but it made it a lasting impression. “That was a very, very cool thing. It was all brand new. Like so many other kids, I wanted to be an astronaut.”

The difference is, she actually became one. She didn’t plan it. In fact, she got her job by answering an ad in the newspaper. It was 1992, and only the second time in its history that the Canadian Space Agency was recruiting new astronauts. Julie, then 28, applied. She was one of 5,000 who did.

She had a bachelor of engineering in electrical engineering as well as a master of applied science in computer engineering. She was then working as a research engineer at Bell-Northern Research in Montreal. Part of her work included speech recognition and the application of interactive technology in space.

Six months after she applied, she got her dream job, “I was quite surprised. I didn’t expect it. I was a little younger than the age at which astronauts are hired” (which is usually in the mid-30s).

It was a grueling process, but she didn’t see it that way, “Actually, it was kind of fun because if it worked, this would be neat but if it doesn’t, all of us who were applying were professionals already.”

Julie underwent basic training in Ottawa before being chosen by the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to fly on her first mission in 1999. She was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Discovery’s flight to the International Space Station. She was the first Canadian to go on board the station, then in the early phase of construction.

When you see those playful images of astronauts floating inside the shuttle, you may think they aren’t that busy. In fact, according to Julie, they have a lot of work to accomplish within a very tight schedule. That’s due to the short length of the missions, about ten days.

“During these missions, you have a pile of things to do and it’s all very scheduled ... It’s all very focused, serious, technical, performance driven.” She says any chance to contemplate comes later. “It’s only at the end of the mission that you start realizing the absolute privilege it is for a human being to conquer space and the planets from above.”

Years ago, the first astronauts were men. Military pilots who were part of a small, unique operation. While women are now making their mark, the space program is essentially dominated by men. They form about 80% of the workforce. Therein lies the challenge for women in this field.

For Julie, as with her female colleagues at NASA headquarters in Houston, Texas, it’s a matter of proving themselves to be as good, even better, than the men. “So you can decide on many ways to approach that. You can decide ‘Hey, this is too much pressure, I’m not going to do it.’ Or you can start going against it, just equally a bad idea. It’ll spring back on you.” She says it all comes down to being good at what you do, biding your time and being patient.

She’s works as a CapCom (Capsule Communicator). As such, she’s responsible for all communications between ground controllers and the astronauts in flight, during missions.

So what do women bring to the table? She says it’s diversity, “Clearly, in a field where you have women and men, you have the diversity that is necessary to have many different ways of approaching things ... Diversity makes your team stronger.”

Julie works in an office with four other female astronauts. They chat and advise each other about almost everything, “It goes from technical to what do you do with your 3-year-old.” With a husband and two children, she says it is a juggle to manage family and work commitments.

When she first applied to be an astronaut, Julie met Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut. Bondar has since left to start up her own company, but she did have an influence on Julie, “She’s definitely always been very supportive. Our paths have crossed many times but not enough as far as I’m concerned. I really admire her very much.”

Growing up, Julie says she was lucky to have very supportive parents. Both parents, but especially her mother, taught her that no matter what she did, she could do more. “So, no matter what I did or how well I did things, I would always get the same: ‘Well, it’s good, well done, but there’s always room for improvement,’ and I think my mom was right.”

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette speaks to elementary school students. The CSA’s Youth Outreach Program is dedicated to reaching the youth of Canada using the unique appeal of space. One specific objective is to increase the number of students pursuing studies and careers in the science, engineering and mathematics.

Now Julie is trying to do her part to encourage girls in their studies. Her message? That “education is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.” She says girls are perfectly capable of learning science and math but as they grow older, their interest drops off. “It’s not that it’s hard or they can’t do it. On the contrary, they perform very well. It seems like they get distracted by other things.” Things like their appearance and trying to please others.

She tries to encourage them to get as well-rounded an education as possible, including science and math. For her, it only makes sense, “Between choosing 50% of the doors (that are open) and 100% of the doors, I’ll choose 100% because I know I’m capable and all those girls are capable.”

As for Julie, she can’t wait for her next mission, whenever that may be. Fellow CSA astronaut, Dave Williams, will go up in June and she hopes she’ll be the next Canadian chosen to fly. “That is all the motivation in the world to keep on working hard.”

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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