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Before He Was an Astronaut, David Saint-Jacques Was a Doctor in an Inuit Village

His time in the Arctic will shape his mission in space.

Kate Lunau

Kate Lunau

Image: Canadian Space Agency

Before he was an astronaut, David Saint-Jacques—who will be the next Canadian in space, blasting off to the International Space Station in 2018—was a medical doctor in the North. Born and raised near Montreal, he moved to Canada's Arctic, living in the Inuit community of Puvirnituq, Nunavik, on the eastern edge of the Hudson Bay.

The time he spent there, where he was co-chief of medicine at Inuulitsivik Health Centre, was perfect training for life in space. And it will shape his time aboard the ISS. "It gave me first-hand experience using telemedicine," he told Motherboard on Monday, shortly after his mission was announced. "This is a technology [from space] we can apply on Earth."

Beyond being a medical doctor, Saint-Jacques (who, like all Canadian astronauts, speaks English, French, and Russian) is also an astrophysicist and engineer. But his time as a northern doctor seems to have impacted him the most, and that's what he keeps coming back to when he talks about his mission.

Exploring the Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Life in space and life in the remote North have some things in common, he told me. "The challenge of maintaining healthy astronauts in space is the same as [maintaining] a healthy population in a remote location on Earth, like the Arctic," he said.

On the station, astronauts are constantly monitored, not only to make sure they stay healthy, but to study how human bodies respond to life in zero gravity. The ISS has an onboard ultrasound imaging device, and technicians on Earth will instruct the astronauts in how to use it on themselves in space.

Techniques like this are being adapted for use on the ground: in French hospitals, according to the European Space Agency, patients are being examined with long-distance ultrasounds modelled after those used on the station.

One day, communities in the Arctic and astronauts in space could benefit from "remote, robotic surgeries," Saint-Jacques continued, although that's a ways off. Still, for astronauts headed to Mars—or for someone in an isolated area who can't immediately access a specialized surgeon—it could make a difference. Given Canada's vast landscape, and its hardcore specialization in space robotics, it's no surprise that one of the world-leading groups in robotic and remote surgery is here, at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Chris Hadfield performing an experiment in space. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Saint-Jacques will be following in the footsteps of Chris Hadfield, who returned from the ISS in 2013 and was the first Canadian to command the Earth-orbiting station. Hadfield spoke to Motherboard over the phone from London UK on Monday night.

"Seven years is a long time since [their] selection," said Hadfield of Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, Canada's other active astronaut, who were recruited to the space program in 2009. "They've been working hard and gathered a huge suite of skills."

Now that Saint-Jacques has an assigned flight date, his training will be stepped up significantly, Hadfield continued. "He'll be away from home more," he said. "Life will be more structured, and more externally dictated." The Quebecois astronaut be spending a lot of time in Star City, Russia, to learn how to co-pilot the Soyuz.

One of Hadfield's biggest successes in space was carving out time to beam photos and tweets to Earth. Astronauts now use social media all the time, but just a few years ago, when Hadfield was up there, it felt new. (The first tweet from space was sent in 2009. Astronauts on the ISS didn't have personal internet access until 2010.)

Saint-Jacques sees it as his responsibility to share his mission with people on Earth, like Hadfield did, and that will include outreach in the Arctic, to Canada's northern and Inuit communities, he emphasized. "I'm looking forward to doing it my way, from my own perspective and background," he told me. "I'm acutely aware that I did not get here alone."