Things just hit home big time when I flew a Dash-4 over the pad this evening at Kennedy Space Center. There it was - Discovery, all of white shining under the late afternoon sun. I just couldn't believe my eyes. Twenty-four days before launch date and here stood the very orbiter I will ride to space or to oblivion. But ride the mighty rocket, ride I will.
- Julie Payette in an e-mail message last month to her sister, Maude
When the shuttle Discovery blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida next week, Julie Payette will soar into the galaxy of her childhood dreams. From the time she was a prepubescent girl growing up in a Montreal suburb with a photo of American astronaut Neil Armstrong plastered on her bedroom door, Payette has been smitten with space. She devoured science magazines, watched television programs about space and, around the age of 9, announced her plan to become an astronaut. "I was just one of many who got really enthused and motivated by watching the Apollo missions," Payette, 35, told Maclean's. "I wanted to fly and I wanted to drive that rover on the moon." Her prospects seemed remote but the longing never ceased. In 1982, during a scholarship year at United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, Payette mused in a yearbook entry: "One day I'll make an enormous pop right into orbit around the earth and contemplate the world."
That Payette is poised to achieve her goal does not surprise people who know her. A highly determined perfectionist, Payette is a Renaissance woman with a broad list of accomplishments that raise the question: is there anything she can't do? A talented pianist, flutist and soprano chorister, Payette also flies jets, speaks six languages, holds two engineering degrees and has competed in triathlons. Since last August, she has routinely logged 15-hour days at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, preparing for the mission scheduled for liftoff on May 20, which will help in the assembly of the International Space Station. If she is daunted by the experience, Payette isn't letting on. "If anything, I'm thinking I better work even harder because I want to really be ready," she told Maclean's in January as her training intensified. "I don't want to make a mistake. My biggest fear is not to be up to the expected standards."
Payette's drive to succeed surfaced early in life. She grew up in Ahuntsic, a middle-class, north-end Montreal suburb, the second of three children. (She has an older brother, Simon, and a younger sister, Maude.) Her father, André, is an engineer and her mother, Jacqueline, did accounting work at a theatre. Her mother, Payette recalls, was fond of saying "there is always room for improvement." And both parents, according to Maude, instilled in them a keen sense of curiosity and an interest in learning and always pushing ahead. "Julie really likes to do things that demand her all," says Maude, one of several family members who will be in Florida for the liftoff. As a student, Payette leapt from one scholarship and award to the next, carving out a daunting résumé. After high school in Montreal, she studied in Wales and then attended McGill University on a prestigious scholarship, graduating in 1986 with a bachelor of engineering degree. A master's of applied science followed from the University of Toronto in 1990. Although the chances of actually becoming an astronaut seemed slim, Payette says she opted to study sciences on the grounds that, "hey, you never know." She was working at Bell-Northern Research in Montreal in 1992 when she heard that the CANADIAN SPACE AGENCY was recruiting its second group of ASTRONAUTS. "I was very happy in my work," says Payette, her hands in motion, her voice animated. "But I thought I have to apply."
Former teachers invariably remark on Payette's intelligence. Several also recall her perfectionism and tenacious streak. Nicole Léger, a former handball coach for a Montreal-area team, recounts how Payette once ignored a warning during a running drill to slow her pace because several teammates had already gotten sick from overexertion. But Payette, who was vying for a spot on the team, raced up and down the sand dunes anyway and also got sick. "She absolutely wanted to be selected and put in a 150-per-cent effort," says Léger. Payette made the team. At CFB Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan, where Payette trained as a pilot and returns periodically to log more hours, Maj. Rob Thorneycroft laughs recalling how "she hovers over the scheduler like a hawk" asking for extra flights. The commandant of the flying instructor school, Thorneycroft calls flying a humbling experience - there are few naturals like the famed American test pilot Chuck Yeager. Payette, says Thorneycroft, tends to berate herself because she feels her flying is not as good as it could be. "I would imagine that everything she'd done up to that point in her life was superior," he adds. "And now she gets into an airplane and things come to her on an average to slightly above average level, which in her own mind may not have been as good as she would have liked."
Visibly fit, Payette is a talented athlete. "You don't want to challenge Julie to any physical sport," says fellow Canadian astronaut Chris HADFIELD. "She'll whop you at squash or badminton or racquetball or whatever." Claude Sauvage, another of Payette's handball coaches, recalls meeting up with her on France's Côte d'Azur. Three young men in their group crept up behind her to toss her into the ocean, he says. But when she sensed their presence, Payette turned around and, one by one, ducked them underwater. "They left asking, 'How did she do that?' " recalls an amused Sauvage. "I told them, 'You don't know her. You don't know the strength and quickness she has.' "
Payette is highly protective of her privacy and initially, for example, balked at even naming the Montreal neighbourhood where she grew up. At the Canadian Space Agency news conference last August announcing her flight, she declined to reveal her marital status, although the CSA later confirmed she is married to a Montreal engineer, François Brissette. Payette says her work is "something that I owe to people to share," but doesn't consider her private life to be of public interest. "I'm a person sans histoire," she maintains. Maude says what people see in interviews is the real Julie. "She's an extremely passionate and dynamic person," she says. "She really loves what she's doing and she also loves talking about it."
Each astronaut is allowed to bring 21 CDs into space. Payette's stash will include music by the famed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra Choir - with whom she happened to sing for three years while in Toronto. She heads to space charged with several responsibilities such as "flying" the CANADARM remote manipulator and helping orchestrate the space walk of two fellow astronauts. "She's very much a quick thinker and a very quick study, and she needs to be," says Hadfield. "She's a rookie on board with extremely high responsibility." For Payette, being in charge of the camera equipment and Earth observation holds special resonance. "I think the reason that motivated me to try this career in the first place," she says, "was this privilege of being able to go and see the Earth from above and see how we conduct matters down here."
Asked what she has missed the most during her intensive training, Payette allows with a laugh that she wouldn't mind having more time "to do ordinary things." Still, she mildly takes issue with the question. "This is what all of us have been working for all our lives," she stresses, "to get to this moment." Her voice brimming with characteristic enthusiasm, Payette says: "This is an amazing job." It's easy to believe her.
Maclean's May 17, 1999