Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar

Episode 1: Dr. David Saint-Jacques, astronaut and physician

November 17, 2021 Dr. Roberta Bondar Season 1 Episode 1
Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar
Episode 1: Dr. David Saint-Jacques, astronaut and physician
Show Notes Transcript

Canadian astronaut and doctor David Saint-Jacques talks to Dr. Bondar about connecting to Earth from space, photography for art and science, and envying birds.

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Roberta Bondar:

The celebration of the 30th anniversary of my historic spaceflight continues back here on Earth with this podcast series Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar. Now this is an opportunity for you to join me while I explore life, creativity, flexibility and change with my guests, some of the most famous and globally well respected Canadians. In each of these podcasts, we will hear a special guest express personal views about the present and the future. And if you have a deep passion for exploration and inquiry, whether it's through the arts, sciences, or athletics for example, the storytelling in this series is for those who wander and those who wonder. Join me now to explore how some of the most notable Canadians exercise their creativity and curiosity in a wide array of fields. Unlike those of the night sky, these stars are within reach. So let's tap into their energy as they enlighten us. Today we welcome Dr. David Saint-Jacques, engineer, astrophysicist and a family physician with expertise in delivering remote medical care. He is best known for his role as a Canadian astronaut aboard the International Space Station the ISS for his 204 day mission expeditions 58 and 59. Between December 2018, and June 2019, the longest space mission by Canadian to date. After launching on a Soyuz rocket to the ISS, he performed experiments in many fields of science, a spacewalk, and even captured a visiting spacecraft with a Canadian robotic arm. I'm thrilled that he immersed himself in the Bondar Foundation's migratory bird project. By capturing images of several avian quarter's from the ISS. He was appointed Officer of the National Order of Quebec, the challenges of COVID moved Dr. Saint-Jacques to aid his medical profession with his hands on support in frontline hospital care, even as he continues with the Canadian Space Agency, let's begin. When you were in space, I'm sure that looking at the Earth while because it's different, it's a different vantage point, that there was something that that you may have felt that you could describe or could think about that you might be able to share with us.

David Saint-Jacques:

Yes, Roberta certainly. I mean, you've seen it yourself. And I'm sure you'll understand the there's something endearing about the beauty and fragility of the Earth. But I what really struck me as a [unknown] you know, we're all used to these views. We know that abstractly, but when you see the Earth floating in the completely dead vacuum of space, I, I found that I can't understand something about the human condition that how exposed we are, and this otherwise unforgiving environment. I mean, space is just dark and black and full of radiations. Other celestial bodies, like the moon is just a dead rock. The sun is a ball of fire, other planets are hopelessly inhospitable, and the Earth is just this incredible oasis. It's breathing. She's alive, she's glowing blue. It's it's just the contrast with its environment is incredible.

Roberta Bondar:

Yeah, and it's you put it so eloquently. The you're right at the sobering the sobering nature of looking beyond the planet and then feasting your eyes on this warmth incredibly living it's almost like a living breathing light that comes back to our eyes I'd say it isn't it is quite incredible.

David Saint-Jacques:

The Earth is our only home in the cosmos and it's not like we have an option we just have to take to be good shepherds and take good care of her. So it was the sense of this just very endearing fragility and sense of exposure. That was kind of surreal it was kind of not scary but you know it's very sobering to just see that like there's there's nowhere else to go and I thought of I thought of humanity as a you know as a mountain climber on on you know climbing this ice wall with just one rope and safety. Like don't mess with your rope. [Laughter]

Roberta Bondar:

I must say that sometimes when people see something a Star Trek movie there was one that showed them bringing a whale back from space because they're bringing it back through time and they're going to be populating it, I keep telling people there's no whale up there that we're bringing back I mean sure there is sunlight and stuff coming in but I don't know fragments of stuff that's floating around but there's there's no whale. [Laughter]

David Saint-Jacques:

Yeah, I think it kind of highlights it, enhanced my the sense of responsibility I think that we should all have within you know, our purview to be good shepherds and do you know try to at least avoid doing damage to this just just this miracle, there's just this miraculous oasis in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It is a wow, it's beautiful. But it's is kind of is it was awe inspiring to see. So that was the main, the dominating feeling. And then, of course, a sense of wonder at, you know, the richness of biodiversity on our planet. How, how come there's life and how incredibly complex it is, and varied and resilient is just, you know, whenever I had a second, I would go to the window, and watch look at the Earth, because it was like a miracle. And then, you know, it's funny now, I'm here in my office, and I look outside the window, and it's the same planet I'm looking at. Right? It's the same earth. It's just another perspective. So I tried to keep that little bit of a wonder, I think I brought back some wonder from space.

Roberta Bondar:

What about what about when you were doing your EVA? Or your spacewalk? How did you manage with that? I mean, you know, it had to take pictures, and you saw the Earth again? And could you tell us,

David Saint-Jacques:

It was so interesting? Yeah. Cuz I had to, by the time just by the virtue of scheduling, by the time I did an an EVA I had already been in space station for over three months. So I was very used to microgravity environment, the view of the Earth, you know, looking at it from the Cupola. But I, I wonder everything is different when you're outside, I just couldn't imagine why is it so different, you know, I would practice floating in the Cupola and not touching anything and with my eyes next to the window. [Laughter] And maybe that's what's going to be like, and then when I, when I finally got a chance to go out, you get very busy. So it was just very busy. And every so often, you know, I'll glance back at the Earth. And then I got very lucky, because at some point, I had a piece of hardware to install somewhere. And it didn't fit. So I made this Call to Mission Control. Oh, sorry, Houston, just don't think this is gonna fit. And then a few questions back and forth. And then here come this call, you know, "Okay, stand by". And of course, that's a gift when you're on a spacewalk. And so I had like 10-15 minutes to myself, at least that's what it felt like, just looking at the Earth, it was during the day, and and I had this vision as I was hearing Mission Control, all you hear is one voice of someone, a friend of yours and mission control, and the another friend of yours outside. So I had Jeanette and Anne the only two human beings around. And I felt this great kind of kinship with humanity. Funnily enough, I thought, look at the planet. How big is a human? Wow, a human, this tiny, I can't even see them right at this from this scale. But I felt the presence if you want the collective presence of 1000s of people over decades, who had scratched their heads, sweat their brains to invent this space station, this space suit, make this possible for me to just be there, young, free floating around in space, looking at the Earth. And I felt these people you know that they'll never, they've never been here, they just saw the, through their imagination. So I felt like it was this scale representative of human imagination of the incredible reach of the human mind. So I didn't feel like I was a tiny little satellite of the Earth, I felt like I was big, I was part of something huge, the human, the reach of the human mind. And, you know, as on one hand, you look at the Earth, and it's sobering, how fragile it is and how big the problems are that we're facing, be them ecological, political, social, medical these days. At the same time, I was reassured, wow we can do this. There's just no limits to the power of the human imagination, international teamwork, when we decide to put our differences aside and work towards a common goal. Look at this. It's incredible. We are keeping human beings in a completely alien environment able to look down look upon at ourselves. So I really felt like a connection to a connection to home, very strong connection to home. Isn't it funny? It's like when you travel, the further away you travel, the stronger the bond with your own country is kind of this. I have to leave Earth to really feel like an Earthling. Finally.

Roberta Bondar:

Yes, it's a good way of speaking about it. It the detachment of the planet. It's amazing sometimes how much then you look forward to things after so you want to bond more closely with something and I remember when I came back, it was it was birdsong. It was sounds of water. It was things that I missed that I knew were on the planet, but it was so silent, [laughter] looking at and thinking. There's a lot of stuff down there and I think about human behaviors and how much more we can be doing with our creativity and our imagination, the kinds of things, but sometimes I know the way we treat each other, certainly politically, and personally, sometimes when I see these new stories come in, it's a bit a bit disconcerting. But then you see a good news story. And I feel like, you know, right away, well, hey, you're not, we're not an all bad species here. But certainly human behavior, when we're in space, if you think about what's going on on the planet, I think there's no need for bad stuff we should all get together and, and solve some of the greater problems. Yeah, for sure.

David Saint-Jacques:

It is understandable, these are all struggles and problems that they come from limited resources, you know, and from, and from not knowing each other that well, just the vast distances on the human scale, I think we can solve, we can solve all this I do I really came back from space with on one hand, a very sobering understanding of the magnitude of the challenges. And on the other hand, just a great optimism as a father, as a citizen, we can do this, we can do this, we can, we can fix all of these problems, we just got a just got to kind of put our minds to it. And as a, it's one of my professional sources of pride to be part of this great endeavor that demonstrates practically on a daily basis that we can work together in space, countries like the US or Russia, Germany, Japan, Canada, that not so long ago, were at war with each other, work together in space to do incredible things. And have been doing doing so for decades. And just, you know, it gives me it gives me hope to really, really gives no, it's not easy, but it's like a concrete demonstration that we can do it. So of course, we do it every day.

Roberta Bondar:

And you were speaking about being a father, could you just help us in terms of understanding the importance of photography to your life, like before flight, and in flight, and now in terms of having as a tool for communicating things and, and sharing?

David Saint-Jacques:

Yeah, my, my relationship with photography started as a teenager, it was more for art, I had a even had a, you know, a black room in my house at some point where I developed my own black and white film. And I liked to take photos of nature, buildings architecture. And then I don't know, at some point, I realized, I really care more about people than about objects. And there are books full of really, really nice photos of mountains and buildings taken by professionals. So for decades, I just took photos of my friends, again, yeah. And then, and then became a father. And then of course, like all parents, then all I take is kid photos of my kids, and 1000s of them, movies and photos. But so going back to space, going to space was like a circling back to this just interest in the aesthetics of photos, we get quite a lot of training at the Johnson Space Center before spaceflight, because it's, you know, there's scientific experiments we do on board and this on the spacewalk using Canadarm. All that. But taking good photos is a big thing that we bring back to earth as these nice photos of the planet and I, I always wanted the photos to be useful and see something interesting, but also to be beautiful. The framing, the lighting, have a bit of a curve of the Earth, a little bit of the atmosphere too. So that doesn't look like a Google Earth photo. It looks like a photo taken from a spacecraft. And so I was and it's an art that's handed over from crew member to crew member, it's one of the things that the senior crew on board space station hands you down these tricks, because we have pretty high quality photographic equipment. But as you know, the better the equipment, the more manual it is, you don't want to rely on the automated setting. So you gotta know what you're doing. And it's you're moving around the Earth, it's moving fast. It's like taking photos of a bird I suppose. There's only one shot, now next time you go over this ground site in the same day light conditions is in several months. So it was a bit of an art to there's a learning curve there. And it was particularly interesting with all the photos that I had to take your for your project, very well described and you know, you like the way it happens keys you know, it's gonna happen at this time you show up to the Cupola. And then you have a you have a picture of the spot from far away and then a few photos from nearer and nearer so you can see it coming in the horizon as the spacecraft flies over the Earth. Oh, yes, it's that lake. It's that mountain. Okay, it's gonna be to the left of this you adjust your camera. You zoom in. Okay, I had the spot. Then you wait for the perfect alignment. [Mimics camera noise] Take your photos. It's okay. I hope the exposure was okay. I hope everything was okay. Because that was the last time for a couple of months.

Roberta Bondar:

Yeah, no, it was great. In fact, the ones that were taken because you went, your flight spanned seasons. It wasn't it wasn't just one season. So that really helped us to create a story about migration and the fact that well, there's no food because there's snow on the ground. And we can talk about the ecosystems that that, that sleep a little bit and the timing of the migration, the birds coming

David Saint-Jacques:

As a as a sailor a quiver for me is a set back, no, all of that. I when I looked at a photograph of the C pola, and all the lenses in t e cameras and you you had a b autiful phrase that you used o on the conference call that w had from space and that wa a quiver that you were pull ng things. It was a marvelo s, marvelous expression. I gu ss maybe because I used to c ach university archery and [la ghter] I think about a quiver and having all these lovely, lo ely arrows and picking the r ght one at the right time for th r of sails.

Roberta Bondar:

Oh, wow, there you go [laughter]. I like that, I guess that's why we need a glossary, at the end of all of this. I won't get into some sidebars of some dual dual interesting words. Maybe I will. When I was at Guelph, AI meant artificial insemination, I got into the space program, it was artificial intelligence. [Laughter] There, okay. Let's see, when you were before you flew in space, birds, were obviously there and you could hear them and you could see them. And then in space, you couldn't see them and you couldn't hear them, but you're photographing where they are. Then after spaceflight, I assume that you're probably waiting for spring to see birds again, unless you're fortunate to see a snowy owl or some gull somewhere. But can you tell us a little bit about, about your affection for birds, and maybe why they're important to you?

David Saint-Jacques:

Yeah, I think I mean, any wildlife I love, I love all wild animals. And having young children, I think, reminds you of the importance because of course, kids just love animals. And I think they naturally see that we are on a level with them, you know that we both belong to the planet and we both live there. And actually, during the beginning of the pandemic, my, my, my seven year old son told me, "you know Daddy, animals don't seem to care about the pandemic. They seem to be okay with the pandemic, thank god. ""Yeah, you're right, you're right. They go about their own stuff, and they really live there." And birds in particular, I find them very gracious, I find them. And because they fly, maybe it's something that I really secretly, not secretly, I openly envy their ability to fly and have we not all dreamt of that as children. And this return of the spring right now, we're in the depth of winter in Montreal, you know, I can't I can't wait to hear birds and see them come back. There's a, going back to my my life in the Arctic, you know, we would during the, during the summer would see all these southern birds, you know, who would be coming to the Arctic. To, to nest. Giant swans from Florida, for example.

Roberta Bondar:

There's one species that we're following that you may you may have seen in the Arctic. That's the kind of they're in flocks when they're down south, but they get sort of separated up with their little families nests, especially on South Hampton Island. But it's the Red Knot, rufa subspecies that we're following. And they're, they're such an incredible bird. We, we photographed them down in the southern part, the east of the east coast of United States in the winter, and they had this grayish, this plumage that you'd never have looked at them twice. And then they go up to Delaware and feast on these, the horseshoe crab eggs and they become red, and then they fly up to Mingan National Park. And they, and then from there, they fly up to South Hampton Island in the in the Arctic, and set their little nests, I mean, it's just, they're incredible creatures. And we're just very, we're very pleased to be able to follow some of them and to have people like you that has really you have had a life, lifelong connection with with the natural world environment, but through your adventures, through your work through and through to your family now that you're trying to create new things for them to do and to get exposed to in the outdoors.

David Saint-Jacques:

And I think as every child for the first time, you understand the scope of bird migration, the distances that they travel, we like to say instinctively but I mean, in some way they figure it out, they just have a different brain than ours. It is this some it's very humbling. It's very humbling how really the world is their oyster and how for them, you know, the their relationship with the land, it must be completely different from ours, because we're kind of ground based animals. There's a, you know we had to invent the airplane to suddenly see our planet differently. Otherwise, we're stuck to what you can see from the side of a road. And so when I had the chance to work as a family physician in the Arctic, and nature is beautiful there, of course, and the I remember and an Inuit Elder explaining to me that the, you know, the Earth doesn't belong to us, it's the other way around. We belong to the Earth. And, you know, you can have that wisdom as an Inuit Elder, and it's completely reinforced when you go to space, you realize, well, all we do here is like through incredible efforts of engineering, recreate the Earth in a little bubble of the Earth environments. So we that's the only way we can go to space by going into a bubble of Earth-like environments where the same airs and temperatures everything so we don't exist outside the Earth.

Roberta Bondar:

Parfait, David. That was just wonderful. Well, listen, all the best to you and to your family. Take care. Bye bye, bye. It really is a privilege to engage with other minds and experiences. I would like to thank Dr. David Saint-Jacques for sharing his unique adventure with us today. Come back again in two weeks for the next Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar podcast, when my guest will be singer/songwriter, Buffy Sainte Marie. Thanks for joining me.