Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques’s training regiment looks like an episode from the TV series Fear Factor.
The 48-year-old from Quebec straps himself into a centrifuge at Russia’s cosmonaut training centre, which whips him around in circles like a high-speed rollercoaster to replicate the sensation of re-entering earth’s atmosphere under gravitational pressure of up to eight times his own body weight.
Saint-Jacques likens manually landing the space capsule to trying to hit a bullseye while “a baby elephant” is sitting on his chest. And yet, he can’t seem to wipe the wide grin off of his face.
“He’s a smile with legs,” jokes veteran American astronaut Doug Wheeler, the NASA director of operations at the Moscow space facility who’s assisting Saint-Jacques with his training. (Wheeler describes re-entering the atmosphere as feeling like you’re “inside a barrel going over Niagara Falls, only the barrel is on fire.”)
WATCH: Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques on training in Russia for space mission
Saint-Jacques’s irrepressibly sunny disposition even in the face of gruelling physical trials is a testament to the fact that he has been dreaming about this since he was six years old and saw his first photograph of the Earth taken from space.
“It’s an old dream that’s been in the back of my mind ever since I was a young boy,” he told Global News. “I can’t remember not fantasizing about it.”
But he admits, he didn’t think that dream would actually come true. Instead, he pursued a career as an engineer, like his father, earning a bachelor of engineering from École polytechnique de Montréal in 1993.
But before long, he decided to change course, earning a PhD in astrophysics from Cambridge University in 1998. A decade later, he changed careers again, becoming a doctor and working in a remote Inuit community in the North.
Along the way, he also became a pilot and learned five languages.
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“I’m one of those people, it just annoys me when if I don’t understand something,” he said. “I just can’t stand it.”
His closest friends joke that they can barely stand it either.
“You have to be really self-confident to be friends with David Saint-Jacques,” laughs Davide Gentile, an old friend of Saint-Jacques’ from Montreal. “Because he’s better than you are at almost everything.”
Childhood friend Nicolas Tittley says Saint-Jacques insatiable curiosity was evident at an early age.
“He was the kind of guy who, if we were playing with toys, he was taking them apart to see what makes them tick,” he said. “I used to watch television and he used to explain to me how a television works. And we were like 12.”
Not content to rest on his laurels as an engineer-turned-astrophysicist-turned medical doctor, Saint Jacques recalled the day in 2009 that he heard the Canadian Space Agency was recruiting.
“It was as if time stopped,” he said. “And I kind’ve owed it to the little boy in me to try, to at least give it a shot.”
After almost a decade of training, Saint-Jacques is about to become Canada’s representative aboard the International Space Station. Co-piloting the Soyuz rocket, he’ll lift off in December and spend about six months living aboard the ISS. His time will be split between doing maintenance, including on the space station’s Canadarm (for which he holds the highest level of qualification), and conducting a series of science experiments.
“For me, in particular, anything that has to do with remote care medicine, because I used to work as the only doctor in a lonely village up north. And I know very well that anything we can come up with to improve health care in an isolated remote environment, such as space, can be helpful back on Earth to people who live in remote communities as well.”
Like his predecessor, Chris Hadfield, Saint-Jacques also hopes to share his extraterrestrial experience with Canadians through social media, hoping to inspire a new generation of six-year-olds to stare out at space and shoot for the stars.