Astronaut Chris Hadfield: In space ‘you recognize the unanimity of our existence’
He captured our imagination with a zero gravity cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, but Chris Hadfield’s time in space was a multi-facted, ‘enriching’ experience. The astronaut and Twitter phenomenon talks to Emma Brockes about the wonder of spacewalking and why he’ll never look as good as Sandra Bullock in a spacesuit
It is a disorienting business, being in space, and most astronauts in the first days of orbit scan the Earth for reminders of home. The Russians look for their great lakes; the Americans for mountain ranges. For Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the International Space Station, it was Plank Road, a 19th-century thoroughfare running through southern Ontario, Canada. “These guys put it there 150 years ago, and it was a neat thing for me to see from orbit. Hey, look! That’s where I’m from!” After a few days, the perceptive lens widens. “And you just start seeing the whole world.”
Hadfield, 54, is sipping coffee from a Nasa mug in the sun room of his home on Stag Island, a picturesque retreat 300km west of Toronto. Since returning from space last year, he has faced an old-school astronaut problem, one that general boredom with the space programme had all but erased: not just celebrity, but a sort of stunned adoration. At a recent event, he was asked in front of 5,000 people, “What is the meaning of life?” The music video he shot from orbit, a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, has been viewed 200m times. Hadfield’s skills are extraordinary: he is a fighter pilot, a test pilot and an aeronautical engineer capable of docking a rocket ship (“It’s not like parking a car”). But that’s not why the world loves him. Of the hundreds of astronauts who have gone into space, none has humanised it quite the way Hadfield has. It’s weird that goofy guitar playing and exchanging tweets with William Shatner should seem remarkable, but in the context of the space station, it was. For the first time, it seemed like an extension of Earth. The night before our interview, he says, he took a stroll along the waterfront and, glancing up, remarked on the passage overhead of the International Space Station, a pinpoint of light in the darkness. “I used to live there,” he mused, with a casualness to make the mind boggle.
It is also the deftness with which Hadfield is able to describe his experiences, not something those with advanced engineering degrees are necessarily well primed to do. As he says diplomatically of a super-bright former colleague, “He wasn’t maybe gifted at interpersonal relationships.” Hadfield, on the other hand, gives a good impression of being a regular guy. “I look like a cop,” he says drily, in response to being told by lots of people how cool he is, something that Helene, his wife, finds hilarious. Actually, he looks like a biology teacher; it’s the moustache and the boyish enthusiasm. “You get the question all the time: when are normal people going to be able to go to space? Well, I’m kind of a normal person.”
Hadfield isn’t worshipped at home. At one point he asks the photographer to avoid his shoes, because Helene hates them and will kill him if she sees them in the shoot. “What a wonderful wife you are,” he says when she brings him more coffee and Helene replies with a withering look.
These qualities have served to head off a syndrome long recognised by Nasa as problematic for returning astronauts: the crashing anticlimax and existential difficulties of life after space travel. Hadfield was a veteran by the time he took off from Kazakhstan last year – it was his third space flight – but he was still braced for the possibility that if the mechanics of the mission didn’t kill him, the mind-warp just might. He wouldn’t merely be travelling in space this time; he would be living there for half a year, on a space station the size of a five-bedroom house, with up to five other people. “We are our own town,” he says. “Every single skill that exists in a town, we have to have on board. There are six of us, then three leave and are replaced by another three. But if they have a problem on the way up, then there’s three of you. So every trio that goes up has to have all the resident skills necessary for the entire time.” And if something goes wrong? If the one doctor on board dies? He smiles. “Nobody can come get us.”
In 1992, when Hadfield was selected for Canada’s space programme, he had no real expectation of ever going to space. Most astronauts don’t. Two decades of training in everything from emergency medicine (he can perform minor surgery) to Russian (he is fluent) might land them only a desk job, albeit a highly charged desk at Mission Control.
For Hadfield, it was miraculous enough merely to find himself in training. Before 1983, Canada didn’t even have a space programme, so in 1969, when nine-year-old Hadfield watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and decided he was going to become an astronaut, it was a thoroughly absurd resolution. Or, as he puts it, “absurd, but not impossible. Just look at some of the things we accept as professions: watch America’s Next Top Model! Or the Olympics. These things are absurd. But we’re human and that’s what we do. And so I figured, what the heck, it interests me.”
He has since gone on two spacewalks, something a total of 200 people in history have done. He has piloted a Soyuz rocket, which has a four-second response window between system failure and death. His coolness of temperament, of course, is part of what recommended him in the first place.
Hadfield trained in the Canadian air force (his father was a commercial pilot for Air Canada), got selected for test pilot school and eventually won a place on the space programme, one of four recruits from more than 5,000 applicants. Then, and later on at Nasa, he passed tests that would freak most of us out at a theoretical level. Would-be astronauts are put through potentially stressful experiences to flush out fears that might compromise a mission, such as claustrophobia. “They zip you inside a beach ball, make it mostly dark and don’t tell you when you’ll be let out. If you’re the type of person that would bother, you won’t get selected.” How did he react? “I thought it was great. I was in a small, dark place with good air and nothing to do for a while. Beautiful.”
Given the probability that he would never get to use these skills in space, Hadfield developed a singular philosophy: “Every single thing that you learn really just gives you more comfort. It’s something I counsel kids all the time: if someone is willing to teach you something for free, take them up on it. Do it. Every single time. All it does is make you more likely to be able to succeed. And it’s kind of a nice way to go through life.”
It is one of the homilies of An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, Hadfield’s new memoir, in which he extrapolates general lessons from the space station and his years of training. The advice is, for the most part, counterintuitive or at least countercultural: when you’re piloting what amounts to a large bomb into orbit, it’s a very good idea, he writes, to “sweat the small stuff”. The main question an astronaut asks himself during the insanely dangerous 10 minutes after takeoff is: “OK, what’s the next thing that will kill me?” To give an idea of the danger: “No aeroplane you’ve ever gotten into had less than thousands of flights before they took their first passenger. Thousands. Because vehicles are unsafe at first. We only flew the shuttle 135 times total. Every single flight was a radical test flight. With really high stakes.”
Avoiding paralysis in those first moments is a question of moving through the minutiae of checklists and protocols. Before each of Hadfield’s three space flights, he went through thousands of drills and simulations at Nasa, in a bid to anticipate every possible emergency, including the death of a loved one on Earth, and his own death (referred to unofficially as “death sims”, to which spouses are invited). On the last mission, this exercise was, sadly, put to the test. “Tom [Marshburn]’s mum died while we were up there. We had talked about it in advance: six guys in our 30s, 40s and 50s, someone is probably going to lose a family member over six months up there. So we simulated; how are we going to support each other, what are we going to do? Then, when it happened, and we got a call from Houston saying we want a private medical conference with Tom, we knew.” (By comparison, Hadfield says, preparing for one’s own death is relatively easy. “If I die, that’s not my concern. I was alive and now I’m dead, so be it.”)
You can imagine Hadfield driving his family mad with these disaster simulations, but it’s a habit of mind he can’t lose. “I treat everything that way.”
Such as? “In an elevator: I get in, and I recognise the fragility of the environment. And the skills set of the people in there. I naturally go, OK, elevators stop all the time, it’s just cables pulling us up and down; what am I going to do if there’s a problem with it? How will I react? I won’t scream and drop to the floor, or grab the wall; that has no purpose.” Everything is about the preparation and, in space at least, about the manual override of earthly instincts: fight or flight, for instance, isn’t helpful when your spaceship goes wrong. Hadfield blinks in astonishment at the way non-astronauts behave in an emergency.
Details about life in zero gravity are always compelling: “If you’re talking to the Royal Bank of Canada, or a kindergarten, or the UN, that’s really all they want to know.” Sleeping on the space station is a question merely of floating, “no need for a mattress or pillow”, Hadfield writes. Space food can be bland; to season it, they use pepper suspended in olive oil, so it doesn’t fly up and scatter, and make everyone sneeze. And there is no washing of clothes in space; water doesn’t function as a cleaning agent the way it does on Earth, so they wear their socks and underpants until they fall apart, then burn them. (Before the mission, Hadfield had wondered if the space station would smell bad, but it doesn’t, he says. He thinks it might be because in zero gravity, clothes float away from the skin.)
The spacewalk is the pinnacle of any mission, and something that only a minority of astronauts get to do. Each spacesuit costs upwards of $1m, and is effectively a one-man space station. If it’s possible to experience claustrophobia and agoraphobia at once, the effect of being trapped in one of these things while floating in the universe would do it. Hadfield, of course, doesn’t have phobias. But he is human. “Spacewalking trumps everything. Viscerally, it is a phenomenal place to be; to be able to glance right and see the world, glance left and see the universe, and realise for a moment that you’re holding on to your known existence with one hand. That’s the thing.”
Spacewalking isn’t how it looks in the new blockbuster Gravity; it’s so dangerous, Hadfield says (a leak in the suit would result in ruptured lungs, burst eardrums and rapid loss of consciousness), that you don’t muck around out there, as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney do before everything goes pear-shaped. (Hadfield did enjoy the film, though. “How did they make all that look so good? Of course, when you come out of your spacesuit, you’re not wearing a tank top and shorts. Sandra Bullock looked really good in those! We wear a diaper and a liquid cooling garment. We don’t look nearly so good.”)
On his first spacewalk in 2001, Hadfield was asked to float to the end of the space station and dismantle an antenna. Before he could finish, it exploded. “I was trying to grab stuff and part of the pieces got away. So Houston said, OK, hold on while we sort out what to do.” For 15 minutes, he floated above the Earth with nothing to do. “This was an early part of the station, so it didn’t have big solid metal handrails. It had little fabric rails. I’m holding on, thinking, it’s like a cheap suitcase handle and that is my link to everybody and everything.” Once he had stabilised, he actually let go. “I just sat there floating, trying to soak up the experience. Alone in the universe, with that view.”
Did he feel lonely? “No. You feel hugely honoured and privileged; this is a glimpse into an understanding of ourselves that no one has seen. I found it overpoweringly visual. You don’t have random thoughts. The onslaught of what was pouring in through my eyeballs was filling up everything. The textures and colours of the world are constantly changing, and a whole continent is rolling by next to you, while this huge gold and silver and white spaceship is there in your hand, and if you just look behind it, there’s the whole universe. Infinity.”
When Chris Hadfield was a child, his teacher took the class to a deserted parking lot, gave them each a piece of string and told them to mark off a square foot of ground and spend the hour studying it. “It was just wild weeds and stuff. I don’t remember a lot of grade six, but I remember that clearly; that if you take the time to notice, there’s a fascinating amount of things happening in one square foot of earth. It taught us appreciation and a little bit of ecology; but it was a real perspective-building thing for me. To recognise the world of wonder that exists in this little square of normal nature. And that same idea carries through to everything. If you notice the minutiae around you, I don’t know how you could ever be bored.”
Hadfield is talking about the adjustments he had to make after returning to Earth from the space station. Earlier generations of astronauts, lacking anyone to ask or help from Nasa, had a lot of psychological problems. “The Apollo guys, some of them hadn’t had time to think about what this was going to be like. And they didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. So a couple of them came back fundamentally changed, religiously. Or alcoholic. Because they couldn’t handle the change in perspective: to be able to cover up the world with their thumb; to see themselves that way.”
It was easier for Hadfield and his crew. Since the 1960s, the space agency has developed a rigorous therapeutic framework for returning astronauts.”We had people to talk to and examples to follow. I don’t know of any recent astronauts who’ve had an epiphany based on space travel.”
Still, pragmatism has its limitations, and the question of what happens existentially when one is able to look down on the Earth is one Hadfield has thought a lot about. “I’ve had a chance to see something that is way outside everybody else’s frame of reference and gives a perspective that is very different from everyone else’s. So how do you then rationalise that with the rest of your life?”
He is quiet for a few moments. “I just have to make it part of who I am and be happy with it and accept it and not let it get in the way. And for me it becomes very enriching. You’ve probably eaten something really delicious at some point in your life. The best thing you’ve ever had. Does that mean all food from then on is terrible? Because you had ambrosia 14 years ago? Probably not. You’ll say, this food is really good, and I had ambrosia 14 years ago. I’m a lucky guy. That’s how I deal with the madness, I think.”
And retaining a sense of wonder about things on Earth? “It’s a deliberate choice. Cynicism is the easiest of all reactions, right? But it’s also so disappointing and self-defeating.”
Hadfield was determined to make the most of his five months on the space station; for there to be fun as well as medical and ecological research; art as well as science. One of his favourite experiments on board came at the suggestion of the Japanese space agency: trying out the Japanese art form of expressing the reflection of the moon in water; only, in this case, it was the reflection of the Earth. “I had to build a big cylinder and squirt water into it, with the Earth out the window, and set up a camera to get pictures of the Earth coming through these water droplets floating around. That’s not my normal job, right? But I really found it delightful. It was one of my favourite things to do up there. They called it Blue Earth Gazing. I really liked Blue Earth Gazing.”
The recording of Space Oddity came about by chance, at the suggestion of Hadfield’s son, Evan (he has three grown-up children), who had to pester his dad into doing it. “I was like, I’ve got stuff going on up here. I don’t really care about Space Oddity. But he was right. The reaction was phenomenal. When I landed, the first human being I met was a search and rescue guy I’ve known for years who reached into the Soyuz and said, ‘Chris, I saw your video, it was great.'” Hadfield laughs. “I just rode a spaceship home from space, and that’s what you want to comment on?”
Being married to an astronaut is a tough gig. You hardly see them and there’s a good chance they will die on the job. You are also competing for their interest with the universe. I ask Hadfield if, in his professional lifetime, it had been possible to undertake the two-year mission to Mars, he would have hesitated to say yes.
“Not for a second,” he says. “Not for a second.” He looks at me in amazement. “Would you?” Er. “Think about it. What were you doing between 1992 and 1994?” Um. “Right. You can’t remember. So why wouldn’t you do something extraordinary?”
Commercial space travel may at some point lessen the mystique of space, but it’s a mistake to think of it as uniquely commercial, Hadfield says. “The shuttle was built by Rockwell for a profit. The space station is run by Boeing. Space flight has always been commercial.” But to operate in a private capacity, outside of government, would be new. Yes, he says, Richard Branson has called for advice on the Virgin Galactic project, and some former Nasa colleagues have been signed up as pilots. What of Branson’s plan to launch Paris Hilton into space? “I’m all for the idea. I commend him for it. But it’s not much of a space flight. I’m not sure that she knows what she’s paying for. She may think she’s going to be Sandra Bullock, see the universe and stars whipping by. None of that’s happening. They’re just going to go up and fall back down again. They’ll get a few minutes of weightlessness, and they’ll see the black of the universe. And they’ll see the curve of the Earth and the horizon, because they’ll be above the air. But whether that’ll be enough for the quarter-million-dollar price tag? I don’t know.”
There’s something else, too. “Eventually they’ll crash one. Because it’s hard. They’re discovering how hard. They wanted to fly years ago and faced a lot of obstacles, but he’s a brave entrepreneur and I hope he succeeds. The more people who can see the world this way, the better off we are.”
Being in space, Hadfield says, “you recognise the unanimity of our existence. The commonality.” The reason his Space Oddity video was such a phenomenon, he says, is not that it told us something about space, but that it told us something about ourselves. “It helped show people something I understand very well: that this is an extension of human consciousness. Human understanding. Human perspective on ourselves. We need to understand it and make it part of our increased self-awareness.” It took a lifetime of training for just a few minutes, but he is able to say: “This was a little step towards that.” •
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