Julie Payette returns to space

Q&A: Astronaut Julie Payette on her next trip to space—the luggage, the food, the office politics, the calls home
Kate Fillion
PHOTO DATE: 12-12-08. LOCATION: NBL - Pool Topside. SUBJECT: STS-127 water survival training at the NBL pool. Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette, STS-127 mission specialist, attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, is pictured during a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)
Julie Payette, STS-127 mission specialist, attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, is pictured during a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)
Julie Payette, STS-127 mission specialist, attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, is pictured during a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)

Q: You were the first Canadian to go into the international space station, in 1999, and you’re scheduled for another space shuttle mission in May. Is being 10 years older an advantage, or a disadvantage?

A: Well, you certainly don’t have the energy you had when you were 20. But the fact that I’ve been to space before is a huge advantage. You’re less apprehensive when you know what to expect. Also, the first flight is very important in this performance-driven culture I work in; it establishes your reputation. If you don’t do well, it’s probably your last flight. So although I have a longer and more complicated mission this time, I don’t have that same pressure. I think I’m going to enjoy it even more.

Q: Do astronauts specifically apply for each mission?

A: You’re always under the microscope, and you don’t know which mission you’re going to get. It’s a surprise.

Q: There are more than 100 astronauts in Houston. How do make yourself stand out?

A: Definitely you don’t become famous by doing something bad; that’s a professional death sentence. You remember that whatever you do, someone will be watching, and you study all the time. It sounds terrible, but you get used to it. I’m 45, and I’m still at school, essentially. Even after being assigned to the mission, I had to write a number of exams, with people commenting on my performance, and this was only to get certified, which means you’ve earned the right to start the mission-specific training on the actual tasks you’re going to do in space. We also do a lot of contingency training on what we’d do if something went wrong.

Q: Where were you when the Columbia shuttle broke apart in 2003?

A: In front of my television.

Q: What was the impact on you personally and on the astronauts corps generally?

A: Generally, after an accident like that, you review how you do things and learn to do them better. Personally, I would not have been able to imagine, when I was working as an engineer in Canada, that I would lose seven of my close colleagues in one go, right in front of the entire world. I had three classmates on this flight; there were no strangers. One of my best friends was on board. I miss her, still, today.

Q: Did it have any effect on your willingness to fly?

A: I’m almost apologetic to say this, but most people here don’t have a wide emotional range. It’s just the type of people astronauts are, they’re required to be level. If anything, [the Columbia disaster] increased my willingness, because I knew they would’ve wanted us to go back up as soon as we were ready and safe to do so, so that this was not all in vain. Some people will always be volunteers to explore, and it is, in my mind, a privilege. I can’t wait to go back.

Q: Have you made peace with the fact that you may not come back down?

A: I have. You definitely get your things in order, because you do know that is a possibility. But it’s a possibility when you cross the street, so it’s a good thing to have your papers in order anyway.

Q: Your family must worry—though your husband is an experimental test pilot, so he’s also well-acquainted with risk.

A: It’s more unnerving for the person who’s not on the shuttle, that is true. I am definitely a little more nervous for my colleagues when I’m working at mission control than I am myself, on the shuttle. But my husband and I don’t worry about each other the way we might if we didn’t have similar jobs. I sometimes get an email where he tells me he’s heading off on a mission to do terrain avoidance 50 feet above the ground at 500 knots. And I just say, “Okay, have a good flight.” It’ll be the same on the day I take off in space, he’ll say, “Have a good flight.” And that’s exactly how we are with our children. With our five-year-old in particular we watch the shuttles take off, we go through the countdown, and tell him what you say is, “Bon voyage, Maman.”

Q: NASA is scheduled to shut down the space shuttle program in 2010 and use Russian airlifts to the space station until the next generation of spacecraft is ready in 2015. Recently, people like John Glenn have argued the shuttles should still operate in the interim. What do you think?

A: I think this is going to be an important decision that the incoming President will have to make fairly quickly because of the monies involved. NASA has a limited budget and cannot have five major programs at the same time. We are flying Russian rockets to the space station right now, so for the astronauts, it’s not different. But of course it would’ve been nice to continue using the space shuttle because it has this unique capability that no other spacecraft in the world has: it can return cargo from space.

Q: Last time you flew on Discovery, this time you’re on Endeavour. Are they substantially different?

A: It’s like when you get a rental car: if you choose a Ford Taurus, maybe there are a few different options here and there, but basically they’re the same.

Q: What are your responsibilities this time around?

A: I’m the flight engineer, which means I sit between the commander and the pilot on the flight deck—in my mind, humbly, the best seat in the house—and I’m part of the crew that flies the shuttle and docks it at the space station. And I’m also an arm operator, so sometimes I’m in the shuttle moving the Canadarm, sometimes I’m in the space station moving the Canadarm2, and sometimes I’ll be moving and operating the Japanese arm, which is attached to their module.

Q: What’s the mood in the space station when the shuttle docks?

A: It’s like they have this home, it’s all nicely organized and everything is in its place, and then, whoops! Visitors come in and they break the rules, move things, use your work station and do space walks out of your air lock.

Q: I’d imagine it’s hard to fall asleep, given the adrenalin and the lack of creature comforts. Are you allowed to take a sleeping pill?

A: Absolutely. This is no time to come up with red eyes because you couldn’t sleep. You have to be a contributing, fully functioning member of the team. We try a whole bunch of medications for all kinds of things on the ground, so this is not the first time you’re taking something.

Q: Is there anything you can’t live without that you bring?

A: There’s nothing I can’t live without, but I do bring maple syrup butter. We have no fridge up in space, so bread would go bad pretty quickly, but we have tortillas, which keep much longer. Maple butter spread on a tortilla is absolutely delightful. On my first mission, the little can I brought was gone in two days.

Q: Is there a weight limit on carry-on luggage?

A: You’re not allowed to carry anything, actually. For all the hygiene items—the toothbrush, the hairbrush, etc.—you go to the crew equipment provider. You walk into a room and there’s clothing, toothbrushes, razors for the boys, things like that, and you choose. “Okay, I’d like this kind of exercise shoes and two pairs of those shorts,” and then you don’t see them again until you’re in space.

Q: How often will you talk to your family?

A: For the first two days, until we’re in the space station, not at all. Once we’re in the space station, we have what I call the ideal system: you can phone out—when the communication link is working, which is not always—but no one can call in. However, there are only two phones and we will be 13 on board, so there might be a lineup, it’ll be like a phone booth. But our families can see us all the time: NASA broadcasts nonstop, on a cable channel.

Q: Is that weird, to think of strangers watching you brush your teeth?

A: No, because you’re conscious of it, particularly if you’re the one woman on board with 12 guys! I usually turn off the camera or go away while I’m getting dressed or brushing my teeth.

Q: Are there personality differences between shuttlers and astronauts chosen to live on the space station?

A: You do have to have some special qualities to go for a long duration. It’s like going on an expedition to Antarctica and wintering there—not everybody is cut out for that. Still, most astronauts are very similar in terms of characteristics, drive and problem-solving, whether they’re Chinese, Russian, Swedish, Canadian or American. It’s a technical job, mostly operational. We’re the operators of the vehicle, but we’re also the Maytag repairman, the proxy scientist, the videographer, the cleaning lady—everything.

Q: And in any working situation there’s friction.

A: Of course!

Q: How do you deal with that in close quarters with a bunch of other super-achievers?

A: Part of it is dealt with through months and months of training in simulators. Yesterday, for eight hours we were in the cockpit of the space shuttle in a flight simultor, six of us in a space the size of the average bathroom. By default, you have to work things out. Also, we do training expeditions in harsh weather conditions in the wilderness. They hide food and we have to find it, we have to build snow caves—some of it is simply to make you a team player. We also do a lot of peer-to-peer evaluation: your colleague tells you his perception, and you tell him yours, and hopefully that’s helpful.

Q: Is every minute of every day in space completely scheduled?

A: The first few days, you have zero time off. Part of that is because there’s an adaptation to weightlessness that goes on in the first few days, and you are slower than on the ground. I don’t get seasick, but people say the adaptation to weightlessness is similar to that feeling. For most of us, it’s a matter of hours or a day where you feel not so comfortable, or nauseated. But this is no time to go in a corner and feel sorry for yourself and say you can’t work. You do your job. I’m told, I don’t know if it’s true or not, that the body remembers weightlessness. I hope so.

Q: Do you think this will be your last time in space?

A: I hope not. There’s no set age when you can’t fly; a yearly medical certification decides that. We’ve had people fly well into their 50s, and of course we had John Glenn at 77.

Q: What do you think about space tourism?

A: It’s a totally normal evolution. As we have a better grip on our rocket propulsion and our means of going to space—it’s still a risky business— this industry will grow. A lot of people, I think, would love to see the earth from above, wear a spacesuit. Certainly, when I was a kid, I wanted to wear a spacesuit.

Q: How do you feel now that you actually have to wear one?

A: Fortunate that I don’t have to do it every day! They’re not very comfortable.