Beam me up Scotty…err, Julie and Robert – Canadian astronauts offer some career advice

By Maddie Keenlyside
Feb. 21, 2014

Have you ever dreamed of going to the stars?
Julie Payette and Robert Thirsk, retired Canadian astronauts, both have advice for youth who want to follow their dreams out of this world.
Payette, an engineer and astronaut, was the first Canadian to help assemble the International Space Station. One of many things she remembers about her time aboard the Space Station is something of great importance to many Islanders.
“We do see the Confederation Bridge from space, did you know that? It’s white against a dark background, so with a pair of binoculars it’s very easy to pinpoint.”
A big myth about science is that it’s hard, Payette says.
“Actually, science is fun. And it’s not hard. It’s much, much, harder to become a violinist in a symphony orchestra than it is to become an engineer.”
Payette began her career as an engineer, and like most engineers was drawn to the field because she likes to understand how things work.
“I like understanding what’s going on and I like putting stuff together, finding solutions to problems. And that skill, particularly of solving problems, can be then applied almost in any field in the world.”
The privilege of going to space is also the privilege that you will represent your country, she said.
“But you’re also there to do a job and you’re expected to do that job perfectly. You’re very concentrated and very absorbed, but that doesn’t mean it takes away from the experience, it’s a fabulous experience.”
Thirsk said young people need to pursue their interests in science and math at grade school, especially if they want to become astronauts.
“Look for the fun in the adventure of scientific discovery.”
They must as well consider a university education in science or engineering or medicine or aviation. Secondly, they must stay in good health.
“Don’t do anything that would harm your body and potentially disqualify you from becoming an astronaut. Stay fit, avoid illegal drugs or excessive alcohol. You don’t have to be in Olympic shape to be an astronaut, but it’s pretty darn close.”
Thirdly, try to accumulate the personal traits that astronauts need to function well as a team in orbit. It’s important to look for opportunities to function as a member of a team, he said.
“If you’re the type of person who would rather work on a project by yourself and not consider other people’s opinions, then you’re not astronaut material.”
Team-based sports and school projects that include other people from a diverse background can be helpful too, he said.
“That’s in a nutshell what young people should be thinking about, but a list – I could probably spend half an hour going through.”
And becoming an astronaut means much more than just the excitement of going into space.
Payette said the space station exists today because so many people – mostly people on the ground – have contributed to it,.
“The astronauts are the lucky ones, that get to fly and go and do the work up there. But thousands, tens of thousands of people have contributed to this extraordinary achievement of humankind, which is called the International Space station.”
It’s been in space now for more than 12 years, with people coming from five different countries: Russians, Japanese, Americans, Europeans and Canadians, she said.
“The truth is that it is an absolutely beautiful, fantastic engineering feat to have been able to construct that in the harsh environment of space, but also to operate it now multi-nationally, so well for so long.”
And it’s something anyone can participate in, just by glancing upwards. The ISS flies over us all the time, but if it flies over in the middle of the day you can’t see it. However, at certain times right before sunset or sunrise, take a look, she said.

“You’ll be able to see it go by in the sky. It’s the brightest ‘star’ in the firmament.”
The ISS passes every day, but it will be passing over P.E.I. on Feb. 22 at 7:08 p.m., Feb. 23 at 6:19 p.m., and Feb. 24 at 7:07 p.m.