Sky is not the limit, Canadian astronaut tells grads

Astronaut Julie Payette turned an old saying on its head Monday to make a point with graduates of York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies and Faculty of Science & Engineering: The sky is not the limit.

Payette, who received an honorary doctor of science from the University, described for the graduating class how her dreams as a 10-year-old girl from a country with no astronauts kept her on a path to become one of only four candidates out of more than 5,000 to be selected for Canada’s astronaut program in 1992.

Julie Payette at York University ConvocationLeft: Julie Payette

“I remembered guys going into a big white rocket…then flying to the moon, then on the moon they would drive a lunar jeep,” she said. “I wanted to do that, but it didn’t seem right. I was a girl in the early ’70s; spoke only French at the time. There was no such thing as a Canadian astronaut…and space travel was still for other people, other nations, so I had the wrong nationality. It didn’t matter – when you’re 10 years old and there’s something fascinating to do, you dream about it.

“Why do we lose that – that idea that we can accomplish something that maybe other people tell us we can’t?” she asked. “You have to keep for the rest of your life. Dare to dream.”

Walter Tholen, interim dean of the Faculty of Science & Engineering, said it was particularly appropriate that Payette address the graduates of the classes of 2010. In speaking about York’s many decades as a “major contributor to Canada’s research in space science and instrumentation,” he said Payette’s remarks would surely help the graduating students “connect their alma mater with space science and exploration.” In his introductory statement, Michael De Robertis, associate dean (research & Faculty affairs) in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, said Payette’s gaze was always "firmly fixed upwards".

Payette also spoke about her own sense of responsibility, as one of a privileged few who have seen the earth from space, to continue dreaming of how we can protect our planet. “I’ve had this opportunity and the only thing I can think of is that the fact that there is only one place that we can live and this place we share, us all. And whether or not we have borders and differences, and different ways and different cultures, we are indeed sharing a single world.”

Walter Tholen with Julie PayetteRight: Tholen shares a light moment with Payette following her remarks

During her remarks, Payette exhorted graduates to “be involved, be active, don’t settle for mediocrity” and spoke about their responsibility as graduates of a mighty institution, to use their education to make important decisions for the future betterment of their community.

“We are a very rich and very resourceful country, a beautiful one and a grand one – and oh, by the way, it takes nine minutes to cross it in the space shuttle – but it’s still big,” said Payette. “When you do make those decisions, that you continue to look out for people who have less and you continue to use what you have more all the time.

“Aim high, dare to dream and – trust me on this one – the sky is not the limit.”

For more on Payette and her accomplishments, see YFile, June 8.

York’s 2010 Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Payette’s convocation address, visit the Convocation Web site.