Chris Hadfield: “The dinosaurs are extinct because they didn’t have a space programme”

We speak to the world-famous former astronaut about his life in space

Chris Hadfield is Canada’s most decorated astronaut with over 4,000 hours logged in space (image credit NASA)

Chris Hadfield is Canada’s most decorated astronaut with over 4,000 hours logged in space (image credit NASA)

Chris Austin Hadfield is a former Canadian astronaut who shot to worldwide stardom earlier this year with his huge public outreach effort during his time aboard the ISS. With almost a million followers on Twitter, he has amassed a growing fan base thanks to his inspiring and educational musings on spaceflight. He is now getting ready to start a new teaching position at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, having retired as an astronaut following his return to Earth in May 2013. We spoke to him about his life as an astronaut and some of the highlights from his glittering career ahead of the launch of his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to life on Earth, on sale now.

All About Space: Why did you originally decide to become an astronaut?

Chris Hadfield: Well, because I watched Neil and Buzz walk on the Moon in 1969. I was nine years old and they were the coolest guys in the world. I just thought I wanted to be like them. You know, you’re going to grow up to be something, why not grow up to be that, something that is right on the edge of possible? Canada didn’t even have an astronaut programme back then, so [being an astronaut] was impossible in Canada at the time, but I figured walking on the Moon was impossible until that morning so why not. From that day forward I started turning myself into an astronaut.

AAS: What was the training process like?

CH: The training is far broader and deeper than most people think, because living on the space station, as I was earlier this year, you have to have every resident skill necessary within the three people on board, everything from reprogramming the navigation computers to doing a spacewalk to being able to do surgery. It is a long, complex process to get that small group of humans basically the skills of a town so that they can take care of themselves in a spaceship for half a year in orbit.

AAS: How did it feel to be selected for your first mission into space, STS-74, on board Space Shuttle Atlantis in November 1995?

CH: I got selected in 1993 and started training, and it was like a rollercoaster ride where you sort of keep chugging up steep hills with everything sort of lurching. You’re working and suddenly you come over the crest and everything just accelerates loudly and you just want to yell and off you go. It was sort of like that, I’d been working and chugging and thinking about it, and then to get a call from the astronaut office to say hey, we’re going to assign you to STS-74 and you’re going to fly in space in November 1995, you can’t keep the smile off your face. You know there’s a whole bunch of work to do over the next few years getting ready for it, but at the same time it’s that little nine-year-old boy’s dream suddenly taking one step closer to reality. It was a great thrill.

AAS: What was your favourite moment from your two shuttle missions, STS-74 and STS-100?

CH: The biggest highlight was walking in space [on STS-100 in April 2001 as the first Canadian space walker]. It is one of the main highlights of my life to be outside of a spaceship in between the roaring visual onslaught, the kaleidoscope of the world just ripping by at eight kilometres [five miles] a second, every colour and texture that exists. And on the other side, if you just turn your head to the left, is the universe. The black is so deep you could almost see the texture of the black, and you are hanging on with one hand between those two things and it’s a real perspective builder.

Hadfield, pictured, became the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk in April 2011 (image credit NASA)

Hadfield, pictured, became the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk in April 2011 (image credit NASA)

AAS: When did you find out you would be going to the ISS on Expedition 34 in December 2012?

CH: We knew that Canada had another slot to fly in space, and if you started looking at the number of Canadian astronauts there were and who might be available, it just started becoming apparent about five years prior [to the mission] that my number might well come up. When I saw that I started getting ready. I determined that I wanted to become a specialist, which is the deepest and most rigorous level of training and understanding, on every system of the space station. And so I did: I became a specialist on the Japanese segment and all of its experiments, the European the same, the American the same; I was qualified to fly the Soyuz, I got qualified in the Russian space suits, I was a robotics instructor, I was a senior spacewalking instructor, I worked on my Russian language, took field medical training, and just made sure that I was getting ready just like when I was nine years old. I specifically got assigned with the crew [in mid-2010] about two and a half years before launch, and then it became my full time job to get ready for the flight. I did nothing but train for two and a half years right through the day of launch in December last year.

AAS: What was it like to live on the ISS?

CH: Probably the hardest part was just maintaining that pace of work for seven days a week for half a year and getting everything done. With the CSA [Canadian Space Agency] I made almost 100 videos in the time up there in addition to all the rest of the work, and I recorded a whole CD’s worth of original music. I did a song with the lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies that almost a million people sang live with me simultaneously around the world, and I worked with my son and together we made that David Bowie tribute, Space Oddity.

I took 45,000 pictures and sent them to the world via Twitter and my son distributed them through other social media outlets to involve the world, not just to do a really nice job of running the experiments up there but to do as much as I could to share the experience. So the hardest thing I think was fitting it all in. I got to bed about one in the morning and got up at six in the morning every single day for my entire five months. At night time I drifted off to sleep basically exhausted every single night but looking back it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t going to spend my time in space watching movies and reading books or something, it was a time to work and to use all of the skills that I had, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

AAS: How would you like to see space exploration develop in the future?

CH: I’d like to see it continue the way that we’ve begun it in this first 50 years, and that is to have robots do the early dangerous exploration to go and look at things and figure out what’s going on there, and then as the probes bring back information we can decide where we want people to go. Earth has proven itself throughout history to occasionally be a very inhospitable place for life with the great extinctions from asteroid impacts and maybe some of the threats that have come externally from Earth. It’d be good for our species to have other options. The dinosaurs are extinct because they didn’t have a space programme, so it’s just a natural thing for us to do.

AAS: Is international cooperation the way forward?

CH: I think the way we’ve done [space exploration] in the last 20 years is admirable in that it is an international programme. I really think that the way we’ve learned to do that, even when there’s other stuff going on between the countries that is antagonistic, is really important, and it’s important to give people a clear, shining, gleaning example of what we can do when we do things right together. If you look up ISS sightings online it’ll tell you what time in the morning or evening to look up and see the space station go over your head, and it’s the brightest star in the sky. That example to me for any kid in the world, any kid standing on any shore line, whether it’s some comfortable place or it’s a desperate war torn place, any of those young people can look up and see a pretty good example of what people can do when they do things right, watching the space station go over. We’ve left some really good groundwork for further expansion and I hope that we continue at the same rate.

Chris Hadfield was speaking to Jonathan (@Astro_Jonny) for an interview in All About Space issue 19, on sale 14 November 2013 from the Imagine Shop, Great Digital Mags and all good newsagents.

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