BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN – As the world’s attention was focused on the Expedition 56/57 crew launch here Wednesday, David Saint-Jacques worked quietly to make sure that his crewmates were prepared for their journey to the International Space Station. Among his duties was holding a video camera during suit-up, to document the activities as the crew was sealed in their spacesuits.
Saint-Jacques had a small but enthusiastic group of journalists following his every public move; four Canadian reporters journeyed here to Baikonur to watch him. Saint-Jacques has been waiting nine years for the chance to fly into space, which he is finally scheduled to do on December 20. His flight is supposed to be six years – almost to the day – since Chris Hadfield made the last Canadian launch to be commander of the space station.
Canadians started their space program in 1983 as payload specialists responsible for particular experiments, but eventually worked their way up into more senior roles – first as mission specialists allowed to do spacewalks and robotics, and now to more senior roles such as Hadfield’s. Saint-Jacques, although he will be on his first spaceflight, is essentially co-pilot of the Soyuz – a role that requires extra training and a very advanced command of Russian.
This evolution “shows just how well regarded the Canadian space program is, how well-regarded and trusted partners that we have become … and I hope we stay involved,” Saint-Jacques said during a press conference with Canadian reporters in the viewing area near the Soyuz rocket, an hour before liftoff at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
But in a way, Saint-Jacques has always been preparing for spaceflight. Observers say he was equally talented in three different careers he held as a younger man – astrophysicist, engineer and doctor. He is famous for providing medical care in the far north of Quebec, where he already was working to help people in isolated conditions.
He was selected in 2009 along with astronaut Jeremy Hansen. Back then, shuttle flights were flying up to seven people at a time. But when the shuttle retired in 2011 and Soyuz reduced spacefliers to three a trip, chances to go to space shrank. Saint-Jacques had just finished basic astronaut qualification training when Chris Hadfield went into space on Dec. 19, 2012 on a Soyuz.
With Canada’s small contributions to the ISS, he had to wait longer for a spaceflight than most other astronauts in his class. But as he helped his crewmates during the last few hours before Expedition 56/57’s launch, Saint-Jacques said the idea of him going to space is becoming more real.
“Standing there in the suit-up room, helping out, I was of course very focused on my duties, but then I looked up and I saw the family members behind the glass and I thought wow, in a couple of months my wife and kids are going to be there,” he said in Baikonur.
Most of Saint-Jacques’ class has already flown to space once, and riding with him will be a member of the astronaut class after him – Anne McClain, an American who was selected in 2013.
But in the interviews over the years, he has always expressed patience with the wait. And NASA, in recognition of Saint-Jacques’ extensive experience in the astronaut office, has already provided him with senior roles. An example is chief capcom for several missions, making him the last word in communications responsibilities.
Saint-Jacques also voyaged to the Arctic to take part in geological expeditions that are supposed to not only provide technical training, but also to give the astronaut a sense of what it is like to be in an isolated condition with limited resources. This isolation experience extended to time with the CAVES (Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills) expedition in 2012, and the underwater NEEMO 15 (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) crew in 2011.
“The things I’m studying now, I’m learning things that will save my life,” he said in an interview in April. “It brings another kind of animal level of focus, that knowledge that everything we do is so dangerous. It will depend on tens of thousands of people doing their job, but we have a part in this huge teamwork. The crew of course, has this huge part, and I am learning my part. I must do that just as flawlessly as everybody else. Then they can do that for me.”
It will soon be time for Saint-Jacques to go to space, but Wednesday he continued his support role for Expedition 56/57 until the crew members were in the spacecraft. Then, from a Baikonur Cosmodrome field roughly 1.5 km, he stood and watched the launch. In front of him was his wife, Veronique Morin, who hadn’t seen him for several weeks since Saint-Jacques was in isolation. But beside Saint-Jacques was a reminder that even here, he must perform; two Canadian journalists were there, recording his every move.
But Saint-Jacques remained graceful under pressure, joking with the journalists before the launch and providing some brief comments even while his crewmates were flying high in the sky. Afterwards, he and Morin walked back towards the parking lot, hand in hand. In only six more months, Saint-Jacques will need to leave her and his young children behind to finally take his own spacecraft into orbit.
What shouldn’t be forgotten is the role of Hansen, the astronaut also chosen in 2009 who won’t get a chance to fly into space until around 2022 or 2023 or so. Hansen is expected to support Saint-Jacques during the latter’s launch, but he will have to wait several more years.
“One might think that astronauts are competing for the rare space assignment, but it doesn’t actually work like that,” Saint-Jacques said in April. “We are very conscious that the only way we can reach the expectations from training, the only way we can pass those tests and be at the level required, is if you get help from a friend. There’s always someone in there, among the [astronaut] group, that is better at this particular task who can help you, and we work together, and the whole astronaut corps gets better. So Jeremy has been helping me from Day 1; we’ve been helping each other since Day 1.”
Also read our last story from Baikonur on Saint-Jacques journey: Astronaut Saint-Jacques may do spacewalk, robotics work during December mission.