21 Jul 2017

Canada's next Governor General - out of this world!

By Claire Eamer

Literally, she was out of this world. Twice! Julie Payette, who will take up the post of Governor General of Canada in the fall, is a scientist, an astronaut, and the first Canadian woman to board the International Space Station (ISS).

Julie Payette. Canadian Space Agency photo.
In fact, she helped build it. In 1999, she spent nine days as part of the second mission ever to the ISS. In a 2015 interview with Macleans Magazine, she said she thought of herself as a space construction worker. "We brought the first three tons of equipment, including some of the Imax camera stuff. We literally switched the light on to the station and walked in."

In 2009, Payette left Earth again, this time as flight engineer aboard the space shuttle. During that trip, she got to manipulate the giant, Canadian-designed robotic arms on the shuttle and the space station - Canadarm and Canadarm2. It was a tense assignment, she said in the Macleans interview: "When you're moving something on a a multi-billion-dollar structure, with people on board who count on that structure for safety and integrity, a mistake is not an option."

Payette has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. She holds a commercial pilot's licence and is also a qualified pilot of military jet aircraft. She speaks English and French fluently, and can also carry on a conversation in Russian, Italian, Spanish, and German. And if that's not enough, she plays piano and has sung with several major classical music groups.

The 53-year-old Payette retired from the Canadian Space Agency in 2013, and became chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre. She left that job recently and will be sworn in as Governor General probably in late September or early October.

As the representative of the Crown in Canada, the Governor General performs the Queen's duties as set out in the Canadian constitution. It is a largely ceremonial role, but offers the person performing it plenty of opportunity to interact with Canadians in all regions and at all levels. Most recent governors general have used the opportunity to bring attention to an aspect of Canadian life that they feel strongly about.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Payette said it's still too early to say what her priorities will be during her tenure, but that they will include science and a knowledge-based society. As both a scientist and a science communicator, she is admirably equipped to take on that task.


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