The Canadian astronaut on what life, research and politics will be like aboard the International Space Station
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques on his upcoming mission to the International Space Station
In December, Canadian astronaut David Saint-jacques will fly into orbit to spend six months aboard the International Space Station on Expedition 58/59 — becoming the first Canadian to blast off since Chris Hadfield in 2012. Saint-jacques split most of his training between Houston, Tex., Cologne, Germany, Tokyo and Moscow, preparing with American astronaut Anne Mcclain and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko for mission aspects such as the Soyuz rocket launch, emergency procedures, robotics and other experiments. From Russia, the physician, biomedical engineer and pilot spoke about the medical technology he’ll be testing and why space exploration matters.
On conducting medical research in space
The main research theme on the ISS is life sciences and medical research. Spaceflight is bad for you, and in ways that resemble diseases that afflict us all on Earth — so we’re the perfect guinea pigs! We’re laying the groundwork for the constant monitoring of astronauts’ immune systems. Canada has universal healthcare and a population dispersed over huge regions, so the provision of good medical care to people far from city centres is a national priority, and one reason we’re heavily invested in this kind of space research. I worked as a physician in the community of Puvirnituq, Que., on eastern Hudson Bay, and I can see how our experiments and the technology I’ll be testing and helping develop can be applied in the nursing stations peppered around the Arctic.
On Canadian-made tech he’s testing
I’ll be wearing a kind of “smart T-shirt” that takes your blood temperature, heart rate and other vital signs without you needing to be all plugged in and wired up. Imagine how useful this could be for elderly people, for example, who could be remotely monitored while they’re in their home, for patients in intensive care or for deployed military. I’m also using a “bio-analyzer,” a miniature blood-testing device something like the phone-sized machines diabetics use to take blood sugar readings, but that does every blood test we run in hospitals. Right now, to do these tests while in orbit, we fill a test tube, freeze it and put it on the next cargo shuttle to Earth. The intended purpose of this real-time technology is to use it during a voyage to Mars, but that operational need is the perfect excuse to improve autonomous medical care on Earth.
On what he’s taking with him
I wrapped up my suitcase long ago, because it doesn’t go on the Soyuz, but on a cargo spacecraft launched months ahead of us.
You can’t take much, so deciding what to bring is an interesting exercise. I packed photos and a mix of symbolic items to remind me of Earth and that I want to bring back for people as mementos. I’m a history buff, so I’m bringing history books, although I expect to spend most of my free time looking out the window. I sent up children’s books by French Canadian authors that we have matching copies of on Earth, so I can read to my kids while they’re flipping along.
On talking politics on the ISS
Astronauts don’t have a no-politics rule. On the contrary, we discuss these things openly. We’re proud of being a link that keeps the world together. On Earth, governments may disagree and bridges may be burned, but we’re one of the bridges that remain. It’s a great responsibility to uphold those standards. We try to be good examples of how humans can work together toward a common goal.
On why we must continue going to space
We depend on space for our economy, security and communications, and use it as a tool to monitor and preserve our environment. You benefit from satellite technology whenever you make a phone call, look at a map or check the forecast. Our agriculture is managed from space, and national security, air traffic and marine traffic depend on it. These networks are as important as our roads and our post offices. We just don’t see them. In many cases, private companies designed, built and launched the satellites providing all that data, and continue to operate them. Space is a great investment. The space station itself is an international lab, open for business. If a startup company wants to try out a new idea or run an experiment, NASA and the CSA can help. There’s a great desire for space technologies to be developed by the private sector, a great desire for space to become mainstream. In a way, space is already commercial, and I think spaceflight is on the eve of a monumental change.
Read an extended version of this interview at cangeo.ca/so18/astronaut.
Saint-jacques at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in June 2018, where he was backup crew for the launch of Expedition 56/57.
Saint-jacques in the practice pool at NASA’S Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, Houston, Tex.