My wife heard the news on the car radio last night, and texted me once she arrived at the soccer game: “Why didn’t you tell me your girlfriend is the next Governor General?”
Ah yes, my dear Julie. I swapped spit in the Florida sun with the woman about to become the 29th viceregal representative, back when I was a young TV director and producer. Ms Payette was a regular character in my life for about a year, even though we met only a handful of times.
I was working on a space science show for the Discovery Channel, called “LifeSpace”. Ambitiously, we interviewed more than 30 astronauts, from the US, Canada, Europe, and Russia, having them respond to questions about our current technological exploration of space, and what was to come. Even amongst such a distinguished, experienced crowd, Julie always stood out.
An astronaut's biography reads like a thesaurus entry for "over-achiever" at the best of times, but Ms Payette's even more so. Engineer. Pilot. Computer Scientist. It's hard not be impressed by lines like this in her CSA bio: "When she realized that speaking Russian would be beneficial to her career in engineering, she learned to speak Russian." Sheez. I was proud of assembling Ikea furniture by myself.
When we first interviewed her, she had finished her astronaut training but had yet to fly her first mission. Still, her enthusiasm blew us away: zero cynicism, complete commitment, and an excitement about exploring the cosmos unmatched by any 12 year old kid. In the battle to find usable interview clips for our 13 half-hour episodes, we used almost every second of her on-camera time. The other 3 associate producers on the show always wanted Julie Payette clips, as they gave our episodes an adrenaline boost. We sometimes bartered back and forth - trade you that Payette soundbyte for that Marc Garneau and a Chris Hadfield? It became an office joke: Julie was my space girlfriend. My colleague Adrienne claimed an Italian astronaut as hers. My actual girlfriend, also an amazing and gifted and talented treasure, mostly appreciated the joke.
We sent our crews to Houston, Los Angeles, and throughout Europe. I directed segments in Las Vegas, Montreal, Toronto. But the big story in 1998 was astronaut hero and US Senator John Glenn returning to space on the shuttle Discovery. I’m sent to Florida, in the middle of rocket mania, to cover it.
Cape Canaveral is mad about space shuttles at the best of times. Before a shuttle launch, it’s insane. I’m one of more than 4,000 accredited media for the event; we’re told that’s a record for NASA, and possibly a record for most press at a single event, ever. More people are expected to watch this launch than any other, including the Apollo missions, which launched from the same towers. There’s a palatable excitement everywhere: This is the Fourth of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Babe Ruth coming out of retirement, all in one. Everyone knows we’re witnessing a historic event.
Into all this anticipation, NASA PR is trying to keep the press happy. They deploy every astronaut they can find to wander the fields next to the big countdown clock, making themselves available to media. They’re wearing their blue jumpsuits, which can’t be comfortable in the October heat. Having arrived early enough to secure an awesome spot next to the water, directly facing the space shuttle, I’m bringing people to our location to interview them. Perfect Florida sky above, the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building on our left, the bay waters on our right, and space shuttles on the pads in front of us: it’s a great shot. But it’s a good hike from the bleachers and satellite trucks where most of the print reporters and ‘live TV’ folks are hanging out, who are getting first dibs on the astronauts.
I wait patiently as Marc Garneau finishes up with a reporter, from. . . let’s just say a major US paper, who is asking him simple background Q’s that are well-covered in our press kits. They’re basic, elemental questions, but Garneau is unfailingly polite and patient. As they finish up, the reporter notices the Maple Leaf flag on his uniform. “Maybe someday you Canadians will make it into space, right?” the reporter said, condescendingly.
“Actually, we’ve had Canadians flying and playing integral roles in the space program since 1984,” Garneau informs him, with more self-control than I can imagine. If I were him, I would’ve politely noted that I was then a two-time space veteran. Hell, I wasn’t him, and I still wanted to yell it at the reporter.
Captain Garneau is just one of the folks nice enough to agree to appear on-camera for us, making the long trek from the bleachers to our waterfront camera. But the one interview I’m hoping for is with the magnificent Julie Payette. Since our location is locked down, I’m essentially negotiating with astronauts and other experts to come down to answer my questions on camera. Thankfully, “The Discovery Channel” has enough cachet for people to join me.
I approach Julie and ask her for the interview. She smiles but says that she has 3 other interviews already lined up: she’s a popular catch that morning. We arrange to check in with each other a few hours later.
The big TV morning shows are broadcasting live. Since this is a closed environment, press only, there are no handlers around separating me from the national anchors, broadcasting to millions. One throws to a commercial break by noting that President Clinton will be there, “only the second time a US President will watch a live rocket launch”. During the commercial break, the anchor asks out loud who was the first president; when her staff doesn’t have the answer, I call out to her, “Nixon. Apollo 12.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Apollo 12? That’s not even a famous one!” I don’t bother pointing out that Apollo 13 only became famous, y’know, after launching. They come back from commercial, and she informs the world of my Nixon Apollo 12 factoid. Oh, the time before cell phone internet fact checking.
The morning disappears. The weather reports a 100% “Go” for launch conditions. It’s hot, and getting hotter. Finally, I meet the incomparable Julie Payette again. We head out for the long walk towards my camera & crew.
Those blue NASA flight suits are made for the atmosphere-controlled environments of a shuttle, or a Mission Control room, not for the Florida sun. It’s obvious Julie is hot. I have a large bottle of water with me; she does not. (I usually make sure my guests are well looked-after, but it’s not like NASA security would let me bring gallons of water through their checkpoints.)
“I have this water bottle,” I tell her. “I’ve already opened it. I’ve already drank from it. If you’d like some, you’re welcome to have it.”
“Non, I couldn’t,” she said, unconvincingly. I held out the water bottle to her; she grabbed it, and took a small swig, and handed it back. I told her to finish it; she downed half of it in what seemed like seconds. “Merci,” she said, suddenly revitalized.
I wondered how I’d spin this tale back at the office. “Julie and I went for a drink.” “We shared refreshments over a long walk by the beach.” Maybe I saved her life with the water? Too much?
We do our quick interview. In what was not my most professional moment, I asked her if we could have a photo together; the resulting snapshot, of the future astronaut and me in front of the Florida waters, sat on my desk for years afterwards. (No, I don’t have it handy now, but I’ll dig it up.)
So that was my moment in the sun, literally, with the future GG. She would go on to a distinguished career, including two space flights, so obviously my spit from that water bottle didn’t contaminate her.
She will be a tremendous advocate for Canada in Rideau Hall, and I look forward to seeing where her passionate enthusiasm will bring her.