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Interview: Chris Hadfield

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Chris Hadfield has seen it all.

Chris HadfieldEverybody’s favourite ‘man with the moustache’ was the first Canadian citizen to take command of the International Space Station late last year, and he has since rose to worldwide fame both online and off.

Whilst in orbit, he managed to use the unique experience to connect with earthlings in an incredibly personal way. He began tweeting from space, publishing fantastic high-resolution photographs, and replying to people with personal messages.

He reached out to wide audiences through YouTube videos and web-chats, and even recorded his very own rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Space Odyssey’ before returning to earth.

On 29th October 2013, Hadfield released his first book and kick-started his career as an author. As you can imagine, he’s managed to achieve a lot in his life, and I was honoured to be given the opportunity to interview him.

“I’ve lived at the bottom of the ocean, driven one-person submarines for research, acted as NASA’s director of operations in Russia, travelled to the space station and coordinated space walks,” Hadfield reflected.

“I was also a test pilot prior, and then a fighter pilot before that. I was even an engineer, a ski instructor, and a farmer. All that.”

You would be forgiven for thinking it near-impossible to document the whole of Hadfield’s life in just one book, and therein lies the trick. As the book title suggests, rather than producing an autobiography per se, Hadfield offers a wide array of advice on how to make the most of your life on earth.

“When you look at the shelves, you can see that you don’t necessarily need to have a deep personal experience to have a biography. I really wanted it to happen later in my career where I had more depth and perspective.”

“I’ve been an astronaut for 21 years which is longer than just about anyone; Neil Armstrong was an astronaut for 8 years. I have built up a vast amount of skills and techniques during that time, and you get to do some things that are very rare in the human experience. I’ve been to the United Nations, parliament, elementary schools, and just everywhere. During that time, I got a sense of what interests people, and what has significance. Several years ago, it made sense to write it down.”

“It’s not just anecdotes. Anecdotes are, of course, inherently interesting because of their uniqueness and because I have experienced all that stuff. But, we turn the anecdotes into all sorts of ideas, and skills, and lessons, and techniques, and stuff that everybody can perhaps think about or benefit from. That’s why I called the book what I did. I thought of the title when I was out walking our dogs with my wife. Surely, it’s an astronaut’s guide to life on earth. Similar to how I’ve given talks for a long time, through the telling of anecdotes and talking about the perspectives that they bring, you can also talk about how people might be able to use these experiences in a way that benefits them. And that’s what the book really is about – it’s not a self-help book - it’s a useful book with a lot of interesting stories which helps you conduct your own life.”

Whilst speaking to Hadfield, it was obvious that he believed very strongly in taking every single opportunity that comes his way. Every event, no matter how banal or random it may seem at the time, helps to construct the people that we are.

“Nothing in your life is truly independent, and they are all connected depending on how strong you make the link,” he said. “There are things I learned whilst I was hitch-hiking and riding trains around Europe when I was seventeen and eighteen. They set me up well to be successful later in life, giving me some depth of understanding and appreciation. It’s not part of the job expectation, but it’s just who I am. They are part of my continuum.”

Just a couple of years after Hadfield’s first mission to Mir, Russia’s now de-orbited space station, he was approached by writers wanting to document his life experiences in the form of a biography.

“I had lots of people coming up to me about fifteen years ago saying “hey, I’d like to write your biography”. I’ve been thinking about it for years, but as an astronaut, we spend a lot of our lives enchanted. We have an International Space Station, we train all around the world, and we spend a minority of time at home.”

“It was on one of these trips that I thought: ‘well, now you’re in Africa, why don’t you write this book, and how are you going to do it?’ I sort of laid out the initial chapter choices and ideas, and had a look at what the significant core topics were. I referred back to it a couple of times to remind myself but then, of course, the book itself took over, and to some degree it directed itself as to what needed to be included or excluded.”

“As you know, writing doesn’t suddenly happen, and that’s especially so for a first-time author like myself. It was something that I had to add a lot to after landing, because I included a lot of things about my first flight. However, the vast structure of the book was written prior to living on the space station.”

Hadfield said he’s the type of reader that will read the same paragraph ten times if he likes how something sounds. How authors construct a text to create human thought consistently makes him feel awestruck. “I don’t go back and read the same book really often, but I’ll follow a strip of books. I just finished a biography of Teddy Roosevelt, and I’m reading a bunch of short stories now about flying. I don’t have one particular book that I want to read over and over again. I like fiction, as well as I like reading a textbook as a way to learn new things.”

Given Hadfield’s immense popularity as an astronaut, failing to discuss his time in space would have been a missed opportunity. Twitter offered a unique interaction that catapulted both him and the notion of space travel into the worldwide public domain once again – all within a matter of hours. It was quite revolutionary, and Hadfield himself never expected it to explode on the scale that it did.

“I think it would have been pretty presumptuous to imagine that level of common knowledge. I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of years prior. At launch, I had, I don’t know, 18 or 20 thousand people following what was going on. I suspected that what I was going to be doing would be of general interest, but there was no way you could predict it. Since I got selected as an astronaut, I decided to take the rarity and uniqueness of this human experience and do my best to express it and share it. Talking on radio is a very individual audience, and you can’t talk to a lot of people that way. I guess it’s like being on the regular evening news programmes, you’re just another 90 seconds in amongst something else. Social media allows you, at a personal and almost private level, to share the reality of what’s going on. And that has been unavailable up until the technology was invented on earth, and then the space station had to be advanced enough to have that connection.

"So, it’s new, and I did my best on a daily basis to talk about what was happening, to take pictures of what was happening, and I really tried and let people see what space flight is, what it’s like to be an astronaut on the space station, and what the role looks like. So it was the power of the social media, giving you the capability. It wasn’t me selling people anything, it was an urge to see it or have that kind of an ingrained worldwide desire to know or to understand. All I was doing was facilitating that, so it was extremely gratifying to see the number of people that weren’t interested but then found it fun and interesting and delightful, and then I could interact with. But then I had the great assistance of my son who was in Israel, and later Germany, who would take what I tweeted and then put it into the other social media that other people might read. He was giving me suggestions as to what people were asking for, because I didn’t have time to read 100,000 peoples’ comments. I found it gratifying, really good and efficient to finally have this experience – I’ve been doing my best speaking and talking and doing whatever I could to share with people for so long, mostly directly, and I was getting reactions back that showed they were getting it. It felt very good to be in that position and to have that reaction.”

His favourite thing about being in space? There was no question about it – no hesitation at all. It was spacewalking.

“Being outside. I loved it all, and it was just spectacular. There were two hundred experiments we ran, we flew the space shuttle, I was the pilot of a Soyuz, I learnt to speak Russian, and then lived on the station. They’re all wondrous experiences, but they all pale, in fact everything pales, in comparison to being out on a spacewalk, alone in the universe, somehow very inexplicably thrust in between the world and the universe. And it’s just a visually stupefying place to be. It’s a very unique experience, and everything pales in comparison to being alone in your space suit, outside of a space ship, looking at the world. It’s an amazing place.”

Chris Hadfield is a role model to people all over the world. Whether you have an interest in space travel or not, he has an incredibly special way of inspiring people.

He understands that our life on earth is precious, and he encourages everyone he meets to make the most of our time here. He could be considered somewhat heroic, holding the natural ability to inspire a whole new generation of space enthusiasts. Then again, he learnt from the best...

“Neil Armstrong walked on the moon when I was 9, so he was a comic book figure to me – a superman. The first three aboard Apollo 11, above all others, did incredible things for mankind; they were much larger than life, and they’re all figures. Fortunately, being an astronaut, I got to know all of them and see the real men that they are. It’s been wonderful to connect those stages of my life. Everyone chooses some sort of role model, whether they mean to or not, but I’ve learnt over the years that everybody does something better than you do. Everybody. Every single person you talk to has knowledge that you don’t have. Everybody can be one of your role models, and you can get something interesting, fun, and useful from everyone you meet. As a child, sure, I had people that I put up on pedestals, but since then it’s changed.”

As you’d expect from an ambitious guy like Chris Hadfield, he isn’t going to stop there, and he does indeed have further ambitions. “I have plans for a few follow-up books,” he said, “and I have been writing for some magazines”.

In the big scheme of things though, Hadfield aims to spend the rest of his life doing whatever makes him happy. He has recently accepted the offer of professorship at the University of Waterloo. “It’s not a prominent time commitment,” he admits, “so it’s something I can do amongst other things. I did graduate work there, and it just made a lot of sense.”

“I haven’t committed to very many things since I retired, and I’ve been outside of Canada for the last 26 years. I’ve deliberately been very slow in committing – I want to get moved back, settled in, and decide. I’ll see what people would like me to do, and I will try to self-discover what I truly want to do, not just what I think I want to do. My wife and I made up a list of things that give us satisfaction and warmth. We’re now trying to pick and choose things. I think it will be a combination of public speaking, teaching, and technical work (consulting or working with other people). I haven’t committed yet, you’ll have to ask me that question in about a year.”

An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield is published by Macmillan, hardback £18.99.

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