Astronaut Saint-Jacques Photography Collaboration Highlights Features on Earth

David Saint-Jacques in the cupola. Credit: CSA/NASA.

In space, David Saint-Jacques is very used to dealing with roommates in the cramped quarters of the International Space Station. Things are roomier than usual at the moment – there are three people up there instead of the usual six – but still, that was the image he evoked when talking about the importance of protecting species on Earth.

“We have a responsibility to be decent – if you want, roommates with those species on our planet,” he told a crowd of about 500 children in a live broadcast from orbit yesterday (Jan. 22) at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Expedition 30 flight engineer, is pictured in a window of the Cupola of the International Space Station, backdropped by the blackness of space
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Expedition 30 flight engineer, is pictured in a window of the Cupola of the International Space Station, backdropped by the blackness of space. Credit: NASA.

He also described the challenges of running from his assigned task to getting the perfect photo from Cupola, to capture anything from natural disasters to migratory bird paths – a new collaboration with former Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who attended the event.

Typically Saint-Jacques will be working on something else when Mission Control calls up about five minutes before a photographic target appears under the space station, he told students. Saint-Jacques rushes to “a quiver of cameras” always at the ready near the windows, with batteries charged and memory cards prepared. He fires his shots, checking an interactive map on a laptop nearby to make sure that he’s aiming at the right spot.

“I know you’re a seasoned photographer,” Saint-Jacques said to Bondar as they chatted back and forth, with occasional awkward pauses due to the several second time delay between Earth and space. “You would love that Cupola. It is the most interesting place to take photos from.”

Bondar only had a bit more than a week in space in 1992, when she flew aboard STS-42 and became the first Canadian woman in space. Saint-Jacques likely has six months. But Bondar vividly remembers those few days, especially how she felt when she saw Canada below her. She started to cry, then tried to wipe the tears off by moving her head. “They [the tears] were shooting out like little bottles of water, so that was sort of cool,” she told her elementary school audience.

Wetland at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Wetland at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: NASA.

But the experience of looking at Earth is what stuck with her most, since everything surrounding it was “light-sucking black … a black with no end.” She learned as an astronaut how to train herself to recognize patterns on Earth, and said that experience will come in handy for the migratory pathways project for both herself and Saint-Jacques.

“The day that I came back, it was a day that I felt it was not just my sacred quest to try to make people enthusiastic about it [space], but really the message was, if you learn about science and technology, it really diminishes the fear factor in life,” Bondar said to SpaceQ shortly after the event.

A Whooping Crane in a wetland at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
A Whooping Crane in a wetland at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Roberta Bondar.

The discussion, which also included comments from Canadian astronaut Jenni Sidey-Gibbons, was part of the launch of Exploring Earth, an Internet-based activity for students between Grades 4 and 12. The photos that Saint-Jacques takes in orbit are plotted on a map, showing features in geology and also in human construction. The full list of partners on the collaboration are Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation, the Roberta Bondar Foundation, Canadian Geographic Education, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Western University.

The supporting materials for the new program were compiled by experts from Western University’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Social Science, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Saint-Jacques and the rest of the Expedition 58-59 crew continue their work on the International Space Station, even though most of NASA remains on furlough due to the government shutdown. Operational NASA work (such as maintaining the space station) is allowed to continue, although public servants and contractors supporting the program are currently working without pay.

The crew was expected to see the arrival of the first commercial crew vehicle during their six-month stay on the ISS, and it appears that so far, preparations are continuing for the now-delayed SpaceX human-rated Dragon launch. Contractors continue work on Dragon as well as Boeing’s CST-100, according to a report in CBS News, although it is unclear how the launch schedule would be affected if the government shutdown continues. Both parties in Congress remain at a deadlock as the record-breaking furlough reaches Day 33 today.

Saint-Jacques and his crew are expected to remain at three people until March, when a fresh crew of three astronauts launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Crew rotations are temporarily disrupted following an abort in October, which stopped the Expedition 57 crew from arriving on the space station as planned. The two crew members will relaunch on the Expedition 59 mission.

More information about Exploring Earth is available at this Canadian Space Agency website: http://asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/missions/expedition58/activities/exploring-earth/map.asp

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space and science reporter, researcher and consultant. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.