We Highly Recommend Hearing from an Astronaut Right Now

Canadian astronaut David Saint–Jacques spent nearly seven months aboard the International Space Station. We spoke with him before he blasted off in 2018, but figured now would be a good time for a catch up. From his home in Houston, where he’s practicing social distancing with his family, we chatted about his isolation tips, travelling in your imagination and how he views the world now that he’s back on it. It made us feel a lot better.

A black and white photo of David St. Jacques, sitting with a mic
   Photo: Michel Pinault

enRoute Right before you blasted off in December 2018, we asked you what you were packing for space. Did you end up bringing the Rubik’s Cube from your parents?

David Saint–Jacques Yes, and it came back with me on the SpaceX cargo ship. I have it at home now, and it still has a little piece of Velcro stuck to it, which is how I kept it on the wall of my crew quarter. On the International Space Station, we each had a little bedroom the size of a telephone booth with a sleeping bag attached to the wall.

ER How does isolating at home compare to your time aboard the International Space Station?

DSJ There’s a big difference: All of that time in space I was alone with the other crew members, and now I’m with my family, which is much better! We have three young children, they’re primary–school aged, so we have to do some home schooling. My wife is a public health physician, so she’s very busy.

March 27, 2020
The view of Egypt from space (left), David St. Jacques and crewmates returning to Earth (right)
   Photo: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA (left); NASA/Bill Ingalls (right)
The book "Le satellite de l'ombre jaune" floating at the International Space Station
   Photo: Canadian Space Agency/NASA
The view of Iraq from space
   Photo: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA

ER You set the record for the longest single spaceflight by a Canadian at 204 days – we’re thinking you might have some insights into not only surviving but thriving in isolation. Care to share?

DSJ Yes, certainly. I have four pointers to pass on:

  1. Stay informed and know the risks – but don’t let it consume you. It’s good to know what the threats are, but don’t overdo it. You can have too much info; at some point you have to switch off the news and stop worrying. Launching on the rocket and living on the space station are extremely dangerous, but astronauts can’t afford to let these things petrify us. You have to get on with life! You don’t forget about the risk, but you look at it calmly and logically, you analyze and assess it, and then you put it in a box.

  2. Have a routine. Everybody knows that it’s important for kids to have a routine, but it’s also important for grownups. It’s just that often our routines are imposed on us by our jobs and our lives. But when you’re in isolation, you decide. And it doesn’t just happen – you have to make an effort to eat well, sleep well, exercise somehow, take time for play, carve out the time for work, and for family and friends. This was perplexing in the space station because you wondered, am I living at work, or am I working from home? What is this? It’s just one spacecraft, and it has to be everything – my gym, home, lab, office. So, you have to develop a way, in your head, to go from the office to your home, or to the playground, even if it’s the same place. In space, we had 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every day, one every hour and a half! It was completely abstract and we recreated the 24–hour cycle, weekdays and the weekend artificially in our minds. It’s all created by a decision, and I am finding that’s very helpful to think about now in isolation, too.

The view of Montreal from space
   Photo: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA
  1. Keep an eye on the big picture and focus on the task at hand. In space, some days were tough, and I would wonder, is this really worth it? But I always found solace in the big picture. So, looking out the window from space, that’s the big picture: The Earth. As we’re all self–isolating, remember why we’re doing so and what the value is: we’re protecting ourselves and society. At the same time, focus on the task at hand; on what you’re doing in the moment. Onboard the space station, there’s a handwritten sign on the wall, left by an astronaut decades ago, that says, “Nothing is more important than what you’re doing right now.” I found that very helpful – it protected my mind from wandering off to all of the things I was missing, or grieving, or wished I was doing.

  2. Focus on others, not on yourself. For several months in space, there were just three of us onboard the space station. Those two people were the only human beings I had access to, so we had to take good care of each other. That meant not letting any conflict brew for too long, apologizing early, making up for our mistakes, being explicit, asking people’s preferences and asking their permission. It’s all of the basic civility things, but they’re even more critical when you’re confined with a few people.
    For astronauts on a space mission, there are many sources of danger, but interpersonal conflict is a huge one. So, think of others and respect one other’s bubbles. Everybody, even the most gregarious party animal, needs a little time on their own and it’s important to be sensitive to that. By focusing on others, it takes the focus off yourself. Even with your colleagues, keep in touch. If you can, instead of answering an email, call the person. We did a lot of that in space – we had an IP phone, so I would pick it up if I had the time, instead of answering email, to have some human contact. You can’t see your colleagues at the coffee machine right now, but you’ve got to try to keep that going somehow.

View of Iran, Iraq and Turkey from space (left), view of Italy and satellites from space (right)
   Photos: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA
Black and white photo of David St. Jacques running at NASA's Johnson Space Center
   Photo: Canadian Space Agency/NASA
The view of Newfoundland and St. Pierre and Miquelon from space (left), Canadarm2 (right)
   Photos: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA

ER Wow, thank you for those! You sound like the best isolation companion.

DSJ Ha! Well it’s not like I have a gift for it. I experienced it and I made mistakes and I learned from them. But it’s something that astronauts need to do right; it’s part of our training, it’s part of the psychological profiling during recruitment, and we put a lot of personal effort into it. You can’t prepare for many aspects of a space mission: the view of the Earth, the constant threat of danger, the absence of gravity. But you can prepare psychologically for confinement and isolation, and we do that over many years. We kind of “play astronaut,” spending time in submarines or caves for several weeks, isolated from our loved ones with a very small group of people. Also, during the training that leads up to the space mission, you’re living out of your suitcase in hotel rooms, going from one training centre to another in the U.S., Russia, Japan and Canada. So, when you finally get to the space station, it’s not a big problem because you’ve thought about it so much.

ER What are you doing to stay connected and inspired while you’re at home?

DSJ I’m lucky that I have friends around the world, including in places that have been very badly hit, so I keep in touch with them and that gives me a more direct perspective on world news. I keep in contact with my parents and family and friends in Canada. I remember spending a lot of time on board the space station at the cupola, just Earth gazing, being in awe of that spectacle: the thin blue line of the atmosphere, graceful Earth spinning against the black velvet of space, and all of the life around it. And here I am, looking out the window and it’s the same planet – why not look at it with the same amazement? It’s just a different perspective. We are all in space; we are all astronauts on this mother ship, Earth, floating in orbit around the sun.

“I remember spending a lot of time on board the space station at the cupola, just Earth gazing, being in awe of that spectacle: the thin blue line of the atmosphere, graceful Earth spinning against the black velvet of space, and all of the life around it. And here I am, looking out the window and it’s the same planet – why not look at it with the same amazement? It’s just a different perspective. We are all in space; we are all astronauts on this mother ship, Earth, floating in orbit around the sun.”

The view of Montreal and surrounding area from space
   Photo: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA
Progress resupply spacecraft (let), the Adriatic Sea, with Italy and Montenegro in the foreground from space (right)
   Photo: Canadian Space Agency/NASA (left); David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA (right)
A space view of the Raikoke volcano
   Photo: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA

ER When we can start travelling again, where are some places on Earth you can’t wait to visit?

DSJ I will be glad to see Montreal again, and to see my parents at their cottage by the lake. But for the moment, I can close my eyes and travel in my imagination.

ER How did your time in space change your perspective on Earth?

DSJ There are two big things. First, it’s sobering to see how exposed we are as a species on our beautiful blue planet, floating in the middle of nowhere. The atmosphere seen from space is like a little thread of fog clinging to the surface of the Earth. The oceans are a mere coat of varnish. And this is it; this is the impossible oasis in the middle of nowhere where we all live. And you look around it and the moon is just a rock, the sun is a ball of fire, other planets are hopelessly inhospitable, and here’s Earth. It’s like a mountain climber who has only one rope; you better take good care of the rope. The magnitude of the environmental and political challenges we are facing are huge, and there’s just no option but to fix them.

But the second thing is that there seems to be no limit to the power of the human spirit. It never ceases to amaze me how the community that’s part of the International Space Station program, comprised of countries that not so long ago were at war with each other, work together in space and come up with incredible miracles in technology. I would wake up on a Sunday, make myself a coffee, go look at the planet and be completely comfortable in space – and that’s thanks to the teamwork around the world, the thousands of people who scratched their heads and came up with solutions to impossible technical challenges. That’s the silver lining: Yes, there are huge environmental and political and social challenges, but I don’t worry about them because humans are able to come up with solutions. There’s no limit to the reach and power of the human imagination when we decide to work together.

ER When we spoke to you pre–blastoff, you said the thing you were most looking forward to was “seeing our beautiful planet floating against the black velvet of space.” Did it live up to your expectations?

DSJ It still sends shivers down my spine. We were still in the Soyuz spacecraft, and the engine had just shut off after 10 minutes of constant acceleration to bring us to orbital speed. We had lifted off at sunset, so by the time we got to space we were on the night side of the Earth. I looked outside my cockpit window between sending commands and I saw my first sunrise: the curved horizon of the Earth seen from above, all the colours, the remnants of a few city lights. It was so moving to see the Earth like that.

The daily view from the space station cupola became a game – I would try to guess, where am I over Earth? What is this continent? What is this country? I became quite good at it. Every continent has its own general look; you quickly recognize Europe and Asia and Africa. We had this saying on board, “If it looks really strange and you think you’ve never been there, it’s probably Australia.” I loved flying over Canada; it’s very easy to recognize the Canadian Shield, the North, the shape of the west and east coasts, and Quebec. One of the most precious things that I brought back from space is this perspective.

Black and white photo of David St. Jacques leak-checking their Sokol pressure suit
   Photo: Canadian Space Agency/NASA
The view of Northern Africa from space
   Photo: David Saint-Jacques, Canadian Space Agency/NASA

“For the moment, I can close my eyes and travel in my imagination.”


The Questionnaire

  • Dream seatmate Nelson Mandela. Or Gandhi. These incredibly wise leaders seemed to apply simple personal ethics to public life and lived by an action that I, too, try to live by: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

  • First travel memory I have a memory from when I was about three years old, at a campsite in the south of France. I remember beautiful weather and the freedom of walking around. I think I had maybe escaped the campsite! My parents were looking for me, but I thought it was great: just going around exploring.

  • Last trip I was in southern England two weeks ago, sailing with a group of college friends for our 50th birthdays. The weather was terrible, but we had strong winds and we stopped by pubs in the evenings – it was great to get together.

  • Favourite souvenir The watch I wear every day, which is made out of rocket material, was with me in the International Space Station – I got it for the trip. It’s one of the few pieces of hardware that I brought back from life up there. I’m not a big fan of souvenirs and trinkets, but this one makes me smile whenever I look at it.

  • Travel has the power to… Broaden your perspective.