Julie Payette, CC, CMM, COM, CQ, CD, astronaut, engineer, jet pilot, musician (born 20 October 1963 in Montréal, QC). Julie Payette is the first Canadian astronaut to board the International Space Station, which she went to twice (1999, 2009). She served as the chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency from 2000 to 2007. From 2013 to 2016, she was chief operating officer for the Montreal Science Centre and vice president of the Canada Lands Company. An accomplished scientific authority, musician and athlete, Payette is a board member of Own the Podium and a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s board of directors. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recommended Payette as Canada’s 29th Governor General. She served in the role from 2 October 2017 until 21 January 2021, when she resigned following allegations that she was abusive toward her staff.
Childhood and Education
Julie Payette grew up in the suburb of Ahuntsic in the north end of Montreal, Quebec. Her mother, Jacqueline, worked as a theatre accountant and her father, André, was an engineer. Payette’s parents encouraged her ambition, curiosity and determination. Fascinated by space from an early age, Payette attended the Collège Regina Assumpta in Montreal.
Payette earned one of six Canadian scholarships to attend the United World College of the Atlantic in South Wales, United Kingdom. After receiving her International Baccalaureate in 1982, she won a prestigious scholarship to McGill University. She graduated with a Bachelor in Electrical Engineering in 1986. In 1990, she earned a Master of Applied Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Toronto.
Through her graduate work and her early career with IBM and Bell-Northern Research, Payette gained experience in computer research activities; particularly in natural language processing, automatic speech recognition and the application of interactive technologies in space. From 1986 to 1988, she worked as an engineer at IBM Canada. From 1988 to 1990, while studying at the University of Toronto, she was a research assistant for a project on high performance computer architecture. In 1991, she was a visiting scientist at IBM's Communications and Computer Science Research Laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland. On returning to Canada in January 1992, Payette joined the Speech Research group at Bell-Northern Research in Montreal.
In June 1992, Payette was selected from 5,330 applicants as one of four astronauts by the Canadian Space Agency. She received rigorous basic training in Canada. She then worked as technical advisor for the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) on the robotic system that made up Canada's contribution to the International Space Station. She founded the Human Computer Interaction Group and was a technical specialist for the International Research Studies Group (RSG-10) on speech recognition for NATO (1993 to 1996). Between 1995 and 1998, she also sat on the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
In preparation for space travel, Payette studied Russian and underwent more than 120 flight hours in reduced gravity on various parabolic aircrafts (KC-135, T-33, Falcon-20, DC-9). In February 1996, she qualified as a military jet captain at the Canadian Air Force Base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on the CT-114 Tutor “Snowbird” jet aircraft. Payette has logged more than 1,300 flight hours in total. In April 1996, in Vancouver, she completed deep-water scuba training in a pressurized hard suit and was certified as an operator.
In August 1996, Payette began initial astronaut training at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She became a NASA mission specialist in April 1998. She was appointed to a technical project in the robotic division of the Astronaut Office.
Space Flight STS-96
From 27 May to 6 June 1999, Payette took part in the 10-day STS-96 mission on board the Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS). She became the first Canadian to board the ISS and to take part in an important assembly mission for the station. The crew of seven international astronauts delivered four tons of supplies to the ISS. Payette’s responsibilities on the mission included operating the Canadarm robotic arm, testing its Space Vision System and supervising two space walks.
Chief Astronaut, Canadian Space Agency
From 2000 to 2007, Payette was chief astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency. During this time, she worked as a capsule communicator (CAPCOM) at Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. She supervised the communications between ground controllers and astronauts in flight. She acted as lead CAPCOM for space shuttle mission STS-121 (2006).
Space Flight STS-127
From 15 July to 31 July 2009, Payette participated in a 16-day space mission aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. On this 29th shuttle mission to the International Space Station, Payette assumed the roles of flight engineer and mission specialist 2. The seven-person crew finished construction of the Kibo Japanese Experiment Module and delivered spare parts and replacement batteries. They also set up scientific experiments, including an investigation into the effects of blood pressure and fainting in space and on earth, and an investigation into the diffusion of liquids. The crew also delivered the last pair of power-generating solar array wings and the S6 truss segment to the ISS; it prepared the station to house crews for future scientific experiments. On this mission, Payette operated three robotic arms — the Canadarm, Canadarm2 and a Japanese arm on Kibo — to help her fellow astronauts on five challenging spacewalks.
During this mission, Payette also met Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk. He had previously arrived at the ISS in May 2009 on a Russian Soyuz space capsule for a long-duration mission. It was the first meeting of Canadian astronauts in space. A record 13 astronauts from five different countries were united at the ISS. With two missions under her belt, Payette had logged over 611 hours and over 16 million kilometres in space.
Career Since 2010
Celebrated for her talent, enthusiasm and determination, Payette carried the Olympic flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. She has since become a board member of Own the Podium, Canada’s Olympic high performance program.
Payette accepted a fellowship as a Public Policy Scholar in 2011 at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (Washington, DC). Representing Quebec’s Department of Economic Development, Innovation and Export trade, she became the scientific authority for Quebec in Washington. In 2013, she retired from the Canadian Space Agency.
From 2013 to 2016, she was chief operating officer for the Montreal Science Centre and vice president of the Canada Lands Company. In 2014, she became a member of the board of directors of the National Bank of Canada. In 2016, she was appointed a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
Payette holds many prestigious memberships, including Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec and the International Academy of Astronautics.
A talented athlete and musician, Payette is skilled in racquet sports, skiing, running and scuba diving. She speaks six languages and is an accomplished flutist, pianist and singer. She sang with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir in Toronto.
Governor General Appointment & Media Interest
In July 2017, Payette was appointed Canada’s 29th Governor General, succeeding David Johnston. After the announcement on 13 July, the Canadian media began investigating the famously private Payette’s personal life and brought to light two incidents from 2011: an assault charge (later expunged) that was laid by her ex-husband, Billie Flynn; and an accident that resulted in the death of a 55-year-old pedestrian who suffered from poor eyesight and had stepped in front of Payette’s car.
Media reports also focused on Payette’s lengthy divorce proceedings with Flynn; they took place in Maryland and ended in June 2017, just before the governor general announcement was made. In August 2017, Payette appealed to have the divorce files removed from the public record to protect her family’s privacy. However, a group of Canadian media sources that included the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC, CTV and Postmedia legally challenged her request. After public controversy about political transparency and the vetting process for the role of governor general, Payette withdrew her appeal on 21 August 2017; she stated that “for reasons of transparency and to leave no doubt, I have decided to voluntarily drop this appeal and release the divorce files.” She also expressed faith in the media’s ability to distinguish between public and private matters. The divorce proceedings were returned to the public record; they revealed a fairly civil divorce between Payette and Flynn.
On 20 September 2017, Payette met with Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral Castle. On 2 October 2017, Payette officially became Canada’s 29th Governor General.
Governor General Resignation
In summer of 2020, reports surfaced of allegations made by current and former staff at Rideau Hall that Payette and her secretary, Assunta Di Lorenzo, had been verbally abusive toward them. Several members of Payette’s communications team had either quit or taken leaves of absence. One former employee, in an interview with CBC News, said that Payette “screams and humiliates staff in front of others.” Another former employee told Global News, “Right from the beginning, I was appalled at what was going on…. The atmosphere, the vibe, the stress, the constant barrage, it was just… it was unbearable.”
In response, the Privy Council commissioned Quintet Consulting Corporation to conduct a review in the fall of 2020. When the report was released on 21 January 2021, media reports characterized it as “damning” and “scathing.” Payette tendered her resignation later that day. As per constitutional convention, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Richard Wagner, assumed the responsibilities of the office until a replacement could be confirmed.
Payette has received many honours and awards throughout her career. She is an Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada; an Extraordinary Commander of the Order of Military Merit; Commander of the Order of Merit for Police Forces, and Knight of the Ordre national du Québec. She has received 27 honorary doctorates from universities across the country.
- NASA Space Flight Medal (1999)
- Chevalier de l'Ordre de la Pléiade de la francophonie (2001)
- Knight of l'Ordre National du Québec (2002)
- University of Ottawa Distinguished Canadian Leadership Award (2009)
- NASA Space Flight Medal (2009)
- Engineers Canada Gold Medal (2010)
- Inducted into Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame (2010)
- NASA Exceptional Service Medal (2010)
- Officer of the Order of Canada (2010)
- Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada (2017)