David Saint-Jacques: Back to Work at CSA and NASA, Appointed Officer of the Order of Canada

David Saint-Jacques prepares for return to Earth aboard a Soyuz. Credit: NASA.

The last time SpaceQ caught up with David Saint-Jacques in March 2022 — the only flown astronaut on the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) four-person active roster — he was using his training as a medical doctor to aid with COVID-19 care in Montreal, in addition to his CSA/NASA duties.

“I worked on the COVID wards for about a year and a half,” said Saint-Jacques. “That actually took most of my time during the pandemic, but since this summer the COVID wards have shut down so I’ve stepped out of that.” (Before joining the CSA, Saint-Jacques was a physician and Co-chief of Medicine at Inuulitsivik Health Centre in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, a remote Inuit community on Hudson Bay.) 

With his part-time physician work over, Saint-Jacques has been busy working on three projects for CSA/NASA. The first is the Canadarm3 robotic arm being built for NASA’s Gateway lunar orbiting space station. Saint-Jacques is working on the human interfaces for this system, in concert with Canadarm3 manufacturer MDA, CSA, and NASA. 

Unlike the Space Shuttle’s Canadarm and the ISS’s Canadarm2, Gateway’s Canadarm3 will be expected to function autonomously using its artificial intelligence-enhanced (AI) control system. This is because Gateway will be unoccupied most of the time. Crews will visit it for a total of about two months per year, Saint-Jacques told SpaceQ, but the rest of the time Canadarm3 will be “the only crew member,” he said. As such, Canadarm3 will have to be able to perform station maintenance, mission, and self-diagnostic/repair tasks on its own with “minimum interaction from ground control.” The Canadarm3 will actually have two elements at work on Gateways: a large, 8.5-metre-long arm and a smaller, more dexterous arm.

In doing these tasks under its own direction, Canadarm3 must maintain sufficient awareness of its surroundings not to hit anything on Gateway as it moves about. “Humans will be able to only give it very, very high level commands,” said Saint-Jacques. After receiving its orders, Canadarm3 will decide how to execute them on its own.”

David Saint-Jacques’ second project is focussed on effective medical care on long duration/long distance missions. Options being considered include self-monitoring and “self care” by astronauts to catch/treat problems early, along with onboard medical equipment that balances weight and space considerations with the likelihood of certain illnesses/injuries occurring in flight.

“This is a very cool topic close to my heart, because you know I used to be a rural physician myself,” Saint-Jacques said. “There are similarities between the challenges by healthcare practitioners in a very remote area and the challenges faced by the crew medical officer on a space mission. These include the lack of equipment and specialized personnel, poor bandwidth communications with specialists, and the need to be a jack-of-all-trades and have a bit of a MacGyver spirit.” 

This being said, “at some point you have to draw a line and say, ‘maybe we won’t be ready for it’,” said Saint-Jacques. “Space exploration missions will be more dangerous than Earth orbit missions just because you cannot medevac.”

Finally, David Saint-Jacques has been in Houston “maybe every month and a half or so to work in operations; to roll my sleeves up and be a mission controller or maybe an instructor for spacewalk or robotic operations,” he said. As for his chances at being the Canadian astronaut on the manned Artemis II mission to the Moon, or to the ISS in 2025? “Obviously I would like another mission, but I don’t decide; we don’t decide,” Saint-Jacques replied. “So all we can do is help each other out so that collectively, as a group, we are the best that we can be.”

After our interview with Saint-Jacques he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada on December 29 by Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada. Being an appointed was the result of “his outstanding contributions to science and technology, and to health care, as an engineer, astrophysicist, astronaut and medical doctor.”

About James Careless

James Careless is an award-winning satellite communications writer. He has covered the industry since the 1990s.

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