ON A TYPICALLY SWELTERING afternoon in Houston, Julie Payette turns up right on time for an appointment at the Johnson Space Center. She’s just flown in from a training session in California. In a few days, she’s off to Moscow to start a new job as liaison between North American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts building the International Space Station, 400 km above the Earth. Aside from the technical manuals that every astronaut keeps nearby, she’s toting a load of Russian language textbooks for her latest assignment. All this—and she doesn’t even break a sweat.
Much about Payette seems almost too good to be true: her fierce ambition; her multiple talents as engineer, pianist, linguist and athlete; even her good looks and relentless optimism. Her flight last May aboard the space shuttle Discov-
ery made her a Canadian hero, and a superstar in her native Quebec. She was just the eighth Canadian to go into orbit, and the second woman, but her mission came at a time when the ho-hum space program needed a dose of glamour.
All that comes at a price. After months of intense training and her 11-day mission, the Canadian Space Agency put her on a cross-country tour to promote space travel— with stops as far afield as Iqaluit in the Arctic. She managed barely two weeks off to visit family and friends in Montreal before taking up the new job commuting between Houston and Star City, the cosmonaut base near Moscow. “Everyone wants a piece of you,” she says, “but you can’t complain. It really is a fantasy job.”
Payette, 36, makes it all seem easy. But for the francophone daughter of a ventilation engineer and a bookkeeper, to de-
‘Here I am with it all spread out for me'
cide to shoot for the stars was extraordinary enough. A highschool counsellor once advised her to think about becoming an airline flight attendant, but Payette’s ambitions were far greater. The rewards are great as well. Orbiting aboard Discovery, she took hundreds of photographs of Earth and gazed at the planet beneath her: “I had to pinch myself— isn’t it amazing and beautiful and vast, and here I am with it all spread out for me.”
The costs, too, are great. As open as Payette is about her work, she is fiercely guarded about her private life. She is married to a University of Quebec at Montreal engineering professor, François Brissette, but neither she nor her tight circle of loyal friends will discuss how they manage their long-distance relationship. Almost every part of her life, she explains, is controlled by other people: NASA officials,
trainers and schedulers who map out every day. She draws her hands together into a circle. “This,” she says, meaning her personal life, “is the only little piece of me I can keep control of.”
Despite appearances, Payette admits to being far from perfect. She quotes a French saying: “On a les défauts de ses qualités”—roughly, one’s shortcomings match one’s strengths. In her case, her ambition and intensity, she agrees, can lead to less desirable traits. “Oh,” she smiles, “I know I’m a perfectionist, driven, maybe even compulsive. It’s part of the package.” But it’s a package that comes together very well. “The most important thing is to find your niche in life, your element,” she says. “This is mine.”
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