Chris Hadfield on the view from above and his fear of heights

In conversation with the Canadian astronaut

by Charlie Gillis

Christopher Wahl

His five-month turn aboard the International Space Station made Chris Hadfield a global celebrity, after which he retired from the Canadian space program. On the eve of the launch of his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, the 54-year-old recounts his wondrous journey from a farm in Ontario to command of humanity’s space outpost, while sharing the keys to his success.

Q: The vivid imagery in this book conveys how intense the sensory experience of living in space must be. Do you ever dream about your experiences up there?

A: I dream about it while I’m awake. I’m not one who spends a lot of time thinking about what I dreamt last night. But it was nice this time to be able to go for so long, to not just get a taste of the experience, but to actually live it, to live there, to really absorb it and become adapted to it mentally. So now, it’s like a language that I speak. It’s part of how I look at things and think of things. There are little things reminding of me of it all the time. The driver on the way to this interview this morning’s name was Vladimir. He’s Russian, and has been in Canada over 20 years, but I immediately start talking to him in Russian and was instantly reminded of talking to [cosmonaut] Roman [Romanenko] on the space station. It was so evocative that the two experiences just sort of flowed together in my head. So, yes, in a way, I guess I dream about it all the time.

Q: You write about how much you’ve loved the warm winters in the southern U.S. I’m sure there’d be opportunities for you there. Why did you come back to Canada?

A: [My wife] Helene and I think Canada has solved the riddle of how to set up civilization better than just about any country on Earth. So it’s not just that our passports let us come back here. We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. Also—I was talking to Helene about it this morning—I haven’t felt like I was grounded somewhere for a long time, just because I spent so much time on the road and living in other places. We’re now in the process of being from somewhere again, which is important to me.

Q: You say you’re not suffering a letdown after retiring. But for the first time, a brass ring no longer lies before you. Has that been difficult?

A: Well, the core of your question is flawed. Flying in space is not a brass ring, a palpable prize at the end of a lot of buildup. It is part of a long process.

Q: But you’ve wanted to be an astronaut since you were nine.

A: I think most people only become aware of a space flight while it’s happening, and tend to think that’s how astronauts experience it, as well—like we’re athletes preparing for the Olympics. I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve done it three times and I’ve lived it to the fullest, but I never felt like [the flight itself] was the peak. So there’s no postpartum. Maybe I’ll answer the question differently in a couple of years. Since I’ve landed, we’ve been hugely busy, between getting the book finished, moving, setting up a new career and extricating myself from the old one. Maybe I just haven’t had time to think about it.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m hoping that will be largely self-revealing. I’ve watched a lot of people leave the astronaut office. It’s a bizarre profession and a lot of people defer having children to do it. Then, when they get to their late 40s, they realize that their kids are going to go to university [soon]. They’ve flown once, maybe twice, in space and realize, “Gosh, I gotta get a real job and make some money, because I’ve been a government employee all this time.” So they rush out and go work for one of the big contactors, you know, tripling their salary. Then, after about six or nine months, they realize: “That was a big mistake, and here I am full-time working for this person I didn’t give myself a chance to really know.” Then they change professions. I’ve watched several of them bounce from job to job over the few years after they leave. I’m trying to avoid that.

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Q: So what does a retired astronaut do?

A: We haven’t lived in Canada for 26 years, so all of our assumptions are stale. We need to have a really good look at the opportunities, take some bridging time to allow it to happen. Lots of people want me to come speak to them, so I’ll do that for a while as we get settled. But if a university asks me to come and teach part-time, that could fit well.

Q: Can you imagine a future for yourself in politics?

A: If you mean to become an elected official, I really don’t think so.

Q: That answer doesn’t exactly sound like a slamming door.

A: Well, you have to ask yourself, why would you want to get into politics? Is it because you want to effect change? Because you think something in your value system and in your personal set of capabilities is worth bringing? If you decide that, then what is the best way to try to change something? I think there are lots of ways to exercise ambition and accomplish things using leadership without going into elected politics. So, categorically, I have no intention of going into elected politics. None.

Q: You can understand why people ask. You became a social media star up there, especially after the Space Oddity video hit the web. To what degree was all that planned and choreographed?

A: Obviously, we set up a bunch of events. If I’m going to talk to schools, the Governor General, the Bank of Canada, those things take time to set up. But back before launch, my son Evan had just finished his M.B.A. and hadn’t got a job yet. While I was in quarantine, I asked him, “If I can’t properly tweet from space, would you tweet stuff for me? If I just email you a picture and some words, can you tweet it?” That was our plan at launch. I wouldn’t have a lot of time, so tweeting’s perfect. I take pictures, I look through my pictures, I choose a good one and then, all I really have to do is write what it meant and send it. Evan did everything else, and millions of people got to see the possibility of what we’re up to there. So I was really pleased. I wish I could fly again in 10 years, so I can see whatever the next phase is.

Q: Are there stories in that book that you weren’t able to share while you were part of the space program?

A: No. I made an absolute precept with this book of not making anybody look bad—there are too many good people doing great things. I don’t see any margin in it. It is, however, easier to write a book when you’re a private citizen than when you’re a government employee, just because of standard rules.

Q: Like what?

A: Well, like the bone loss in my hips. The government goes to incredible lengths to protect my private medical data, and they’ve got a whole structure just to make sure no one finds out to what degree I have bone loss in my hips. I don’t understand why that’s even private data. I think it’s important for everybody who’s osteoporotic, for other astronauts, for people’s understanding of what goes on [in zero gravity]. Some people are more private about their medical data, but I’ve been open about it all along.

Q: You talk in the book about the “power of negative thinking,” which is a cheeky inversion of self-help cant. What do you mean?

A: A lot of people live in fear because they haven’t figured out how you’re going to react when faced with a certain set of circumstances. I’ve come to terms with this by looking deeply into whatever makes me fearful—what are the key elements that get the hairs up on the back of my neck—and then figuring out what I can do about it. Even if the fear-inducing event doesn’t happen, you feel much more at peace because you know you have a plan. It’s a learned behaviour, but I think it’s an effective one. Don’t ostrich it. Then, when you are inevitably faced by something, you’re relying on gut instinct—not skills or planning—to pull you through. It might work, but there’s a pretty good chance it won’t.

Q: I have no doubt that works for you. You’re an astronaut, you’ve got a wide field of abilities. But I’m imagining someone who gets downsized in middle age. He’s been encouraged to specialize throughout his entire career.

A: I think I’m more specialized than just about anybody in the world.

Q: But specialized in so many things! This guy gets to his stage of life and realizes too late he’s been, in effect, sticking his head in the sand?

A: But we’ve both lived the same number of years and we both had the same number of hours available to us, and was that person—is any person—thinking about what might happen this year, or what might happen in five years? How better to get myself ready for whatever might happen? You know, I’m a very good Soyuz [spacecraft] manual docking pilot. Spacewalking is an extremely complex and demanding skill, and I’ve become quite proficient at it. But neither of those things has any practical application. The key is to continue to analyze what may be coming up in your life, continue to get yourself ready, and don’t just expect everything to go well. When things do go sour, you’ve got some options, and you’ve got an internal confidence that really helps.

Q: I was amused to learn you’re afraid of heights. Is that not a fatal flaw in a test pilot?

A: It’s like being afraid of sabre-toothed tigers: You ought to be, because they can kill you in a second! I’ve been over a million feet up, but I focus on why a thing scares me, and how I control that particular set of circumstances so that which scares me is not going to kill me. I would not want to stand on the edge of this roof above us and look down. It gives me a primal, almost uncontrollable fear—that watery feeling in the belly, where your legs are shaking and you can hardly move. But all I need to do is clip myself on [to a safety line], and I can manage that fear.

Q: Could you have done what that Red Bull guy did, parachuting from the capsule from the edge of orbit?

A: I could have done that easily. He knew it’s not the height that kills you; it’s the hit at the end, so he had a wonderful plan for the last 5,000 feet. The first part was just falling. Now, standing on the edge of the Half Dome in Yosemite? That takes the bottom out of my stomach.

Q: You clearly have an affinity for Russia, where you lived for two years, and for its space program. What is it that attracts you to Russian culture?

A: I have great respect for their ability to sustain a space program through 50 years, despite the foibles of politics and transient events on Earth. First, they build beautifully simple hardware. I’m a mechanical engineer, and I grew up on a farm, so I like practical hardware—somebody’s elegant solution that proves itself over the long term. I also believe the key to really enjoying Russia is the language. It’s a very foreign language for most North Americans—different alphabet, few cognates, the words don’t sound the same. But learning it is almost like acquiring membership in a club. If you put enough time into it, if you can decode it and understand the beauty of it, then Russia looks different.

Q: How so?

A: You see Moscow not as kind of a grey, slightly rundown place of 10 or 15 million people, but instead as a 1,000-year-old piece of human civilization. The way that they honour their own culture—the history of it, the beauty of it—is so much more closely embodied in their definition of who they are than is the case in North America. We’re very transient and pop, and they are very much not that way. And they’re much less worried about appearances. They’re hugely concerned about their inner lives. The interpersonal and the love that they have for each other, and for their civilization, is profound.

Q: Right now, the ISS seems like the last bridge between their society and ours.

A: It’s huge. Think back to Mir, which was launched in ’86. Western media barely even knew it existed for the first five or six years that it was there. Then suddenly, you couldn’t read about it without seeing some derogatory adjective attached to it. Embattled. Archaic. Decrepit. All to make it look inferior. It’s a carry-over from the Cold War—a desire to keep that big, scary, dark bear on the horizon. Look, Russians aren’t perfect. Their politics are messed up, and they keep going through self-defeating economic cycles. But I have a lot of respect for Russia, and a lot of love for Russians.

Q: You were in space the day of the Boston Marathon bombings. When you’re gazing on the planet from on high, what do you make of the politics and the history behind these events?

A: Hugely wrong-headed and uninformed. The trite explanation for that is, when you see Earth from space, the borders disappear. You’ll be looking at Africa or Europe, and thinking back to what happened there 60 or 70 years ago, and you’ll be wondering: How could that little line right there have meant anything to anybody? You can’t even see it from a million feet away. But more important is that you can see that people all around the planet live more or less the same way. One of the guys on the crew put it best. He said we look like bacteria in a kitchen—we’re living in these sheltered little warm spots that have a nice supply of moisture. You can look down on a city and think, hey, I know that place. But then you wait half an hour, and you’re on the other side of the world, looking at a place you’ve never even heard of and, wow, it looks exactly the same.

So you make this link. You realize, “Those people are the same. They’re trying to solve the same problems the same way. They just have their own particular set of barriers and circumstances.” So it affects your response, when you hear about some idiot doing something stupid that has a negative effect on it all. You have to accept it; there are good dogs and bad dogs in life. You just wish that people could get a little more of that million-feet-away perspective.

Join Maclean’s and Chris Hadfield in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 3 as Hadfield launches his first book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Click here to purchase tickets, which include a signed copy of the book.

 




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Chris Hadfield on the view from above and his fear of heights

  1. Remarkably open answers – especially about fates of other astronauts after “retiring”. And I’d never have associated him with a problem with heights. I’d say he’s confronted that fear rather effectively. His tweets from the ISS were fantastic.

  2. ‘Helene and I think Canada has solved the riddle of how to set up civilization better than just about any country on Earth.’

  3. Hockey, Tim Horton’s and Chris Hadfield (Canada)

  4. He is to much awesome for one man, I suspect he may be from outer space…
    Role him out more often as a role model I say. Woderful interview, thank-you.

  5. An utterly inspiring Man – I wish I knew him in RL .

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