Great interview with David Saint-Jacques | Dreaming of Mars when the Earth is burning

“If we only did what was necessary to survive, we would still be in the caves. »

Returning to the Moon, then making it a springboard to bring humans to Mars: this is the objective of the Artemis program, in which Canada is participating. But when the Earth burns, aren’t these quests futile? I discussed it with astronaut David Saint-Jacques.

The previous quote is undoubtedly the one that best summarizes why, according to David Saint-Jacques, it is justified to continue space exploration even if the challenges we have to overcome on Earth seem titanic.

The Quebec astronaut clearly has his work cut out for him to convince readers to The Press.

“Let’s save our planet first. The Moon and Mars can wait a few more decades! », wrote one of them following an appeal to all that we had launched.

The majority of comments were in the same vein. At a time when the climate crisis threatens humanity, not all of you are thrilled with the idea of ​​seeing humans set foot on the lunar soil again. Even the idea of ​​one day conquering Mars leaves you largely cold.

“I understand,” said David Saint-Jacques when informed of these reluctances. The priority will always be to take care of children and the elderly. The priority is to feed yourself, educate yourself, find shelter. It is to ensure the long-term survival of humanity on Earth, both from an ecological and geopolitical point of view. »


Astronauts Jeremy Hansen – a Canadian –, Victor Glover, Reid Wiseman and Christina Hammock Koch on stage after being selected for the Artemis II mission which will venture around the Moon

But what David Saint-Jacques essentially argues is that we can (and must!) go beyond our priorities.

Since the beginning of humanity, with the few excess resources we have, we have done three things: arts, science and exploration. And, ultimately, it is all these small advances that make civilization.

David Saint-Jacques, astronaut

Here, Mr. Saint-Jacques joins a notion that is dear to me: that science and discovery are an integral part of culture.

We are not asking Denis Villeneuve to stop making films because the climate is changing (even if Xavier Dolan, at one point, said he wanted to throw in the towel exactly for that).

We continue to fund our libraries, subsidize television and music, applaud our successful writers.

The exploration of space seems to me to arise from the same fundamental need to go beyond ourselves, to open new perspectives, to transcend everyday life.

The big difference is obviously that a trip to Mars costs much more than publishing a novel. And it is perfectly healthy for us to debate the resources we want to devote to this great return of manned missions – especially since probes and robots can go into space for much less than humans and satisfy part of our curiosity.

David Saint-Jacques argues that the budgets are not that high.


David Saint-Jacques during training in Moscow, in 2017

Everything humanity does in space – the Space Station, satellites, telescope James Webb, astronauts, everything – totals less than 0.5% of global GDP. We spend a lot more on weapons, for example.

David Saint-Jacques, astronaut

The perspective is interesting, but the fact remains that the sums are colossal in absolute terms. The total cost of a manned mission to Mars, for example, could reach US$500 billion, according to some estimates⁠1.

Canada is obviously far from assuming the lion’s share of international space investments. This year, the Canadian Space Agency’s budget amounts to $537 million, three times less than that of the Société de transport de Montréal. And the last federal budget dedicated approximately $1.4 billion over 13 years to lunar exploration.

On a total gross domestic product which is close to 2,000 billion dollars per year, that remains modest.

The Moon to win Mars

To judge the relevance of investments, we must also understand their objective.

Starting next year, David Saint-Jacques’ Canadian colleague, Jeremy Hansen, will go around the Moon. If all goes well, humans will set foot there again in 2025.


This image shows what the lander that will carry NASA’s first astronauts to the lunar surface should look like.

David Saint-Jacques, however, insists that Artemis does not aim to repeat the exploits of the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s.

Yes, we’re going back to the Moon, but it’s in a completely different spirit. The goal is to have a permanent presence on the Moon, much like we have in Antarctica.

David Saint-Jacques, astronaut

Ultimately, this return to the Moon aims to prepare humans for the next step: reaching Mars.

“With the International Space Station orbiting the Earth, it’s like going camping in the backyard,” says David Saint-Jacques. We practice, we try our equipment. But we’re not ready to go to Mount Everest – which is, in my analogy, Mars. The Moon is the stage between the courtyard and Everest. It’s like going to Mount Washington, let’s say! »

David Saint-Jacques agrees: bringing humans to Mars will be “a different game”. The adventure promises to be extremely complex and risky. And that, according to him, is precisely the whole point.

“Space has this ability to bring out the best in the human spirit, precisely because it’s so difficult,” he says.

It lists some of the challenges that will need to be overcome to get to Mars.

“Growing food in impossible places. Recycle water. Recycle CO2. Generate energy and manage it. These are all problems that concern us on Earth,” he emphasizes.


The surface of Mars, photographed by the rover Perseverance from NASA, in 2021

Either. But couldn’t we just tackle these issues here without using the Mars excuse?

” I agree. Except that historically, when you put a dollar in space, something comes out at the end. The stimulation that it brings is almost magical,” replies the astronaut, recalling for example that computers were first miniaturized to be able to enter space vehicles.

The Quebec astronaut also praises the international cooperation that space exploration brings. I point out to him that that didn’t stop Russia from invading Ukraine…

Space is one of the only bridges left. Today, despite the horrors, despite all the tensions, in every ship Soyuz who takes off, there is an American. And on every SpaceX ship, there is a Russian. It’s like the little flame that stays lit and keeps hope alive.

David Saint-Jacques, astronaut

He himself does not know if he will have the chance to participate in the lunar missions.

“The little boy in me is still dreaming. He always dreams of the Moon. But it’s not me who decides,” he says, saying he is aware of having gone “behind the line”. Three other Canadian astronauts are indeed waiting to go into space.

I don’t know if David Saint-Jacques will have convinced you. For me, it doesn’t count. I’m sold in advance. I wrote a book on David Saint-Jacques. I’m a fan of space exploration. I am fascinated by its culture of excellence, by its ability to make us understand our place in the Universe.

However, I know one thing: if humans one day set foot on Mars, the entire Earth will vibrate together at this incredible feat. And that doesn’t even happen once in a generation.

Who is David Saint-Jacques?

  • Holds a doctorate in astrophysics and a medical degree.
  • Appointed astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency in 2009.
  • Spent six months on the International Space Station, from December 2018 to June 2019.
  • Is the father of three children.

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