LONGUEUIL, Que. — As David Saint-Jacques blasted off into space Monday, retired astronaut Robert Thirsk clinically explained the process to a packed crowd of Canadian Space Agency staff and guests.
It was only after the spacecraft safely entered orbit about nine minutes later, drawing the first applause from an audience watching a live NASA feed, that Thirsk admitted to some pre-launch jitters about the Canadian astronaut’s mission.
His former colleague was on the first manned launch since a rocket failure forced a Soyuz capsule carrying two astronauts to abort and make an emergency landing in October. Russia briefly suspended launches to investigate before giving the mission the all-clear Nov. 1.
“I think I was more anxious today than on a typical Soyuz launch because of the launch abort in October,” Thirsk, the first Canadian to fly aboard a Soyuz capsule, said in an interview.
“But I do trust the Russian colleagues … and they made the right decisions. And we saw today, complete success.”
As Saint-Jacques became just the ninth Canadian to head into space, people across the country connected with the Canadian Space Agency to watch Saint-Jacques’ historic flight.
Former astronaut Dave Williams took part in a launch party at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, while in Halifax, Mi’kmaq students, educators, and families gathered at the Discovery Centre to watch. Saint-Jacques holds a special place in the community: He has adopted the Mi’kmaq name, Tapit, and he is carrying into space what the Mi’kmaq describe as spiritual gifts.
By the end of his 6 1/2-month space mission, Saint-Jacques, 48, will have set a record for longest space trip for a Canadian — a record currently held by Thirsk.
But he won’t have much time to dwell on that feat. Aboard the station, Saint-Jacques will be conducting a number of science experiments, including research on the provision of remote medical care and on the effects of microgravity on the body.
Thirsk is no stranger to long-duration space flight. He embarked on his own six-month trip to the space station in 2009, just a few weeks after Saint-Jacques joined the astronaut corps, and he has spent more time in space than any other Canadian, with 206 days under his belt.
Thirsk, 65, said he advised Saint-Jacques not to forget to take some time for himself.
“What he’s doing right now is incredible — very few people have ever done it. So take time to stop and think about what you’re doing for Canada, for humanity,” Thirsk said. “Look out the window, without a camera, just look down at the planet and think about what the big picture is.”
One of Canada’s newest astronauts, Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, grinned broadly as the rocket carrying Saint-Jacques launched. She later said she was caught off guard by her own reaction watching her colleague fulfil a lifelong dream.
“I know that it’s something that means a lot to him and his family and the team that got him there,” she said.
But Sidey-Gibbons, selected for the space program in 2017, is excited about the prospect for what the future of exploration may hold — moving beyond the lower-Earth orbit and into deep space missions.
“Space is changing so quickly and my hope is Canada’s as much a participant as it has ever been in international programs moving forward,” she said. “We don’t know where we’re going to go or what we’re going to find, but it’s going to be interesting.”
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press