Governor General marks International Space Station’s first two decades

Former astronaut Julie Payette shares views on space travel with science journalist

If there are two people in Canada who should know a thing or two about the International Space Station (ISS), they’d have to be Governor General Julie Payette, who did two tours of duty as an astronaut from Canada aboard the spacecraft, and Canadian science journalist Bob McDonald, who has been covering the ISS since its launch at the beginning of the new millenium.

Last week, Payette hosted two virtual conversations over the internet, revolving around the theme, ‘20 Years of Continuous Habitation on the International Space Station,’ to mark the anniversary. One was with McDonald, host of the CBC’s long-running Quirks and Quarks science series, while the other was with Charles Tisseyre, the host of ‘Découverte,’ a televised Radio-Canada science program.

From the left, Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette, who spent time on the International Space Station twice while a Canadian astronaut, shared anecdotes and thoughts about the ISS last week with Canadian science journalist Bob McDonald, who left his mark on the space station in an odd sort of way.

ISS’s 20th anniversary

The ISS is an orbital science laboratory and the largest human-made object in space. Its construction required more than 40 assembly flights over 13 years. Measuring the length of a football field, the ISS is made up of 16 pressurized modules, with four pairs of giant solar arrays to generate on-board electricity.

The first long-duration crew arrived at the International Space Station on November 2, 2000. Since then, 240 astronauts from 19 countries have worked on the ISS, conducting construction missions, spacewalks and maintenance operations, as well as a multitude of research projects.

Informed conversation

McDonald is a seasoned journalist who is passionate about science as well as the future of human space exploration and travel. His expertise, combined with the Governor General’s first-hand experience on the ISS as an astronaut, brought a unique perspective to their conversation.

“I always make a point to say that the International Space Station could not have been built if it hadn’t been for Canada,” Governor General Payette said, noting the robotic Canadarm2 which was deployed on the ISS in 2001. “The Canadarm2 and the Dexterous Manipulator are still very crucial to this,” she said. “It’s a fitting thing that Canada decided that its contribution would be so vital, and continue that contribution.”

Saw space program grow

Asked by the Governor General for his impressions of the space station, McDonald said, “For me, it’s a continuation of watching the space program from the very, very beginning, because I’m old enough that I remember Sputnik, the very first satellite. The whole thing. I watched all the moon landings, not just the first one. I knew the names of all the astronauts.”

The International Space Station could not have been built if it hadn’t been for Canada

– Governor General of Canada Julie Payette

Although he never travelled into space, McDonald said he had a personal connection with the ISS. In 1995 when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was training for his first space station mission, McDonald tagged along with Hadfield to the factory in Russia where modules for the ISS were being built.

Left his mark on the ISS

“So, I went over to one of them that was sitting there – it wasn’t finished – they were still building it,” he said. “It was just this big metal tube. They were putting in wiring and plumbing. So, I went over and I stuck my head in and I got a real sense of just how big those modules are.

“I mean they’re the size of buses,” he continued. “And I thought this is really neat. And then when nobody was looking, I took my thumb, I reached inside and I put my thumb on the metal. So, my thumbprint is in space, my DNA is in space. So, I have a personal connection with the space station.”

The future of space travel

McDonald and the Governor General agreed that the cost of commercial space travel is coming down, anticipating a time, possibly soon, when “space tourism” becomes a reality. “It is actually beginning to happen,” said McDonald, noting that major stakeholders such as Richard Branson are investing heavily in commercial space travel, with suborbital flights by his company expected to begin before the end of this year.

While space research is sometimes criticized as wasting money which could be spent resolving problems on earth, McDonald suggested a lot has been learned from the International Space Station. “What it showed us is how to live in space,” he said. “If we’re going to go to Mars, we have to live in space. And the space station did that.”