For a man who might be the most celebrated astronaut since Neil Armstrong, Chris Hadfield is exceptionally modest. When I speak to him at a signing for his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, he is amiable and approachable. Only his uncommonly firm handshake betrays the strength and control which he undoubtedly gained from thousands of hours of intense training.
“I’ve lived most people’s childhood dream. I’ve piloted 70 types of vehicle, gone on three separate space missions, and space walked twice. I’ve had so many of the richest and most rewarding experiences of life and I count myself as extremely fortunate.
“If I was to follow a life like this with regrets and concentrate on the things I missed out on, I think that would be a very sad way to go through life. It’s certainly not a way I’m going to do it.”
Like millions of others, Hadfield was inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landings, but he is among only several dozen to have risen to the rank of Commander of the International Space Station. I ask him what, besides plain determination, allowed him to become one of the very few to achieve such a lofty goal.
“If you have a great goal that you’re working towards, people tell you to visualise success, but the reality is actually the opposite. Instead imagine that everything goes as wrong as it possibly could at every step. Visualise and make plans based on the idea that everything is going to go wrong, so that when you come to execute your plans you’re ready for anything that can possibly be thrown at you. Make sure you have a rigorous attention to small details.
“We have a joke among us that there is no major problem in space that a good astronaut can’t make worse! When I first decided I wanted to become an astronaut, aged nine, Canada had no space program of any kind. So I prepared my high school, college and career as a military fighter pilot with that goal in mind.”
In 1983, when NASA first invited Canada to fly astronauts on the Space Shuttle as part of the Canadian Astronaut Program, his planning paid off, allowing him to be one of only four Canadian astronauts from a field of over 5000 candidates.
Hadfield stands out from other astronauts through his engagement with social media and attempts to humanize the experience for people back on Earth. He meticulously documented each and every detail about life in space, from the magnificent to the mundane. He credits his son Evan for introducing him to the possibilities social media provided to share his experiences. He used Twitter to provide over a million followers with awe-inspiring photos from the depths of outer space, and participated in two of the most popular ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions in the history of Reddit. He also filmed the first ever music video in space, a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, as well as interviewing the Canadian actor William Shatner from orbit.
“What you learn to understand about space is that, while the technical details are interesting and have their place, what people mostly care about is the human experiences and feelings, the minutiae of how different space is.”
His videos record everyday events made extraordinary by the otherworldliness of outer space; one is an explanation of how it feels to cry in space, where water coalesces in a pool over the eyes in the absence of gravity. His observations provide a captivating personal perspective on his travels into the unknown: the smell of space after a spacewalk is like gunpowder, to his mind, for instance. He also tells of how Australia is the most interesting looking country of them all from space.
Considering that he is well known for bridging the gap between scientific exploration and artistic endeavour, I ask him what particular works of art best replicates the feeling of space exploration. He calls Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s celebrated film, “visually stunning; I don’t know how they managed to capture the visual aspect of being in space so completely.” But, he adds, “it’s inaccurate on the technical details, although I don’t think that’s a problem.
Apollo 13 is the film that is easily the most accurate portrayal of all facets of spaceflight; the director went to significant lengths to give a historically and technically accurate portrayal, down to the individual pieces of dialogue.”
We move to discussing some of the more practical political issues surrounding space. When questioned by Reddit users, he described the privatisation of space as the, “right and natural way of the future.” I ask him what he thinks about the possibility of space travel being privatised in the future.
“Privatisation is the natural historical progression and I have no problem with that. If you take any comparable industry such as air travel or railroads they initially need a collective organisation to set up infrastructures and create frameworks for them to operate. They need an initial large investment by a government, but will slowly transition to a state where they are primarily the ground of private enterprise.
“We are at the cusp of the transition where most of the major advances in space are going to come from private enterprise. We’re starting to see it now with the SpaceX dragon and we’re going to see more of it soon with endeavours like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.”
I offer another commonly cited concern. As spaceflight gets cheaper and more accessible, is he worried about the weaponization of space by the Earth’s militaries? He tells me that is like asking whether we are worried about the militarisation of the sea. “The idea that space will somehow be treated differently to anywhere on Earth just isn’t realistic.
“There is a tendency to romanticize the idea of outer space. But the idea that space is some new beginning or blank slate is wishful thinking. We have never been peacefully united on the ground, and there isn’t a reason why being higher up will somehow make us behave differently. It’s just a little bit silly.”
Next, I question him about his emotional response to the isolation of being in space. “It’s not an experience comparable to anything most people experience, and, especially in the beginning of space flight, astronauts could have trouble dealing with their emotional responses.”
He mentions Buzz Aldrin, who wrote about falling into a deep depression for years upon returning to Earth after the first moon landing. This meant that it became important for Hadfield to try and connect his life aboard the space station much as possible with his life on Earth.
He explains that having the guitar he famously played Space Oddity on, or the laptop that he used to document his travels with, served a purpose beyond mere entertainment; they also became a way to reconnect with life back on Earth and defeat that supreme sense of isolation.
This is a man who, after such an exceptional career, manages to retain a great mix of humanism and pragmatism. He might have retired, but he continues to make his mark on this world by sharing with us what he has learned from the time he has spent outside it.
This desire to communicate the importance of space travel has defined Hadfield’s career. As he wrote shortly after the Challenger disaster, where the space shuttle broke apart just seconds into its flight, “As each of the fallen crew would tell you, exploration of the rest of Creation is fraught with complexity, challenge and risk, yet the benefit of understanding is infinitely worth the cost.”