Astronaut David Saint-Jacques becomes fourth Canadian to complete spacewalk

LONGUEUIL, Que. — Astronaut David Saint-Jacques became just the fourth Canadian to complete a spacewalk Monday, accomplishing several tasks alongside NASA astronaut Anne McClain in about six-and-a-half hours before returning inside the International Space Station.

Saint-Jacques, 49, is the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk since 2007.

After re-entering the space station, he hailed the mission as “a glimpse of the future as we venture further into space.” He said the international effort was an excellent example of collaboration.

“Because when we manage to look beyond our differences, we achieve things that seem impossible,” Saint-Jacques said. “That’s how we progress.”

McClain, who was performing her second spacewalk, thanked the ground team for their support. “We know that it’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of big sighs of relief as soon as the hatch did get closed,” she said.

The spacewalk appeared to run like clockwork, with Saint-Jacques and McClain actually leaving the space station half-an-hour earlier than scheduled.

Retired astronaut Dave Williams said astronauts prefer to have a cushion against the unpredictability of working in space. “We like to get ahead on the timeline and stay ahead, because you never know what’s going to happen during a spacewalk,” Williams said at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in suburban Montreal.

Williams holds the Canadian record for the most spacewalks, with three for a total of just under 18 hours outside the space station during a 2007 mission. Those came at a time when there was extensive building going on at the station.

Now, astronauts are transitioning mostly to maintenance tasks, which partly explains the long gap since the last Canadian spacewalk by Williams. The other two Canadian astronauts to have performed the feat are Steve MacLean in 2006 and Chris Hadfield in 2001.

Saint-Jacques is on his first posting to the space station, which began on Dec. 3. After emerging from the station, the Canadian performed a few brief movements to get used to his suit before diving into the to-do list, which took 6 hours, 29 minutes.

The tasks took the pair all over the station and included relocating a battery adaptor plate, upgrading the station’s wireless communication system and connecting jumper cables along the midpoint of the station’s main truss to give Canadarm2 an alternative power source.

Canadarm2 is a sort of robotic hand that is crucial to maintaining the space station, and the new cables allow the arm to make repairs in case of an outage without requiring a spacewalk. 

Williams, who spoke to Saint-Jacques on Saturday, said he was very excited about the mission and proud to wear the Canadian flag, but laser-focused on the tasks ahead.

It was the third spacewalk in just under three weeks for space station occupants, and much of the work involves replacing batteries on the 19-year-old outpost with fresh ones that arrived in December. Canadian Space Agency robotics flight controllers were providing support to the astronauts from mission control in Houston.

Saint-Jacques’ spacewalk wasn’t a given when he arrived at the station, with schedules in flux and a manpower shortage caused by an aborted Soyuz mission last October, said Ken Podwalski, the CSA’s space station program manager.

“The primary objective is always to do science, but there’s a lot of work going on there just to maintain the operations of the space station,” Podwalski said.

With the manual tasks complete, Canada’s robotic contributions to the station will finish installing new lithium ion batteries. “We’ll be able to come down with Canadarm2 and Dextre at the tip and robotically finish moving those batteries around,” Podwalski said.

Saint-Jacques’ movements were visible through a helmet camera, giving viewers watching live online the astronaut’s perspective.

Williams said that while it may look lumbering, it’s necessary to go slow to maintain control. “David’s doing an incredible job, moving very gracefully, using just fingertip forces to go from one place to another on the space station,” Williams said earlier Monday. “That’s the mark of a highly experienced spacewalker, already.”

The astronauts returned inside just before 2 p.m. EDT, likely exhausted from several physically demanding hours with no food and just one litre of water in a suit pouch.

Williams noted that astronauts spend years training, getting into shape and training underwater to mimic the choreography. “Quite literally, it’s years of training for hours of spacewalking, but it’s quite an experience getting to do it,” he said.

Saint-Jacques, McClain and Oleg Kononenko of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos are scheduled to return to Earth in June.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques takes part in a spacewalk as seen in the livefeed from the Canadian Space Agency headquarters Monday, April 8, 2019 in St. Hubert, Que.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz