It's fitting that one of the first experiments to be conducted by Canada's first astronaut in space since 2013 – will be a research project designed by a Canadian university. If all goes well, one of his first tasks during his six-month tour will involve conducting experiments on himself, as part of a research program designed by York University's Center for Vision Science.
"We know so little about what happens to humans when they're exposed to microgravity," says Professor Laurence Harris, a York psychology professor who heads the center. "One thing we know is that they get very disoriented and often feel quite sick."
Harris and his team designed an experiment to test human responses to being in space, in particular the perception of a person's own motion while in microgravity But because space is limited on the ISS – Harris says his team had to design a virtual reality program to simulate the experience or sensation of moving, which is called "vection." Saint-Jacques has already strapped on the virtual reality headset to establish his baseline responses to the experiment here on Earth.
"Our displays will be a little bit more boring than zooming around on a roller coaster or a jet plane." We're having a person simulate walking down a corridor, "said Harris. "The astronaut will be then asked how far do you think he's moved."
Effects of Microgravity
Harris says the instruments have already been sent from York to the ISS on a previous re-supply mission. Saint-Jacques will strap himself into a special harness, put on the VR headset and run the experiment when he first arrives, then a number of times during his stay, to see if there's any sort of adaptation. Then the test will be run again after he returns to earth to see how long the effects of microgravity last.
Harris says the aim is to develop a mathematical model to express how human self-motion perception is altered after a long duration in microgravity and how long it takes to recover upon return to normal Earth conditions. It's one of many tasks Saint-Jacques – the first Canadian astronaut to visit the space station since Chris Hadfield's five-month mission ended in May, 2013 – will conduct.