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 can­­tro­naut.

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.

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