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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: Chris Hadfield has big plans for life after the final frontier

<I>An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth</I>: Chris Hadfield has big plans for life after the final frontier

Colonel Chris Hadfield’s new book, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, hits store shelves in Canada, the USA, and the UK tomorrow, October 29. The National Post was fortunate to have a conversation with Col. Hadfield about his return to Canada, the excitement of publishing a book, and what’s next for him in the future:

The first thing Commander Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to command the International Space Station, does as he arrives for our meeting is apologize for being two minutes late. “I stepped out to get lunch,” he explained, “and I got asked to pose for some pictures.”

“Not a problem,” I assure him, mentally crossing “Do you get recognized in public?” off my list of questions.

Hadfield, an accomplished fighter jet and test pilot before he was an astronaut, is the kind of person Canadians should recognize on the street. His accomplishments in the military and space are impressive enough, but Hadfield’s public profile goes further than that. His social media presence — almost a million Twitter followers, and hundreds of thousands more on other platforms — as well as his public outreach efforts while aboard the station made him a household name. In many ways, he straddles the line between an accomplished public figure (of which Canada does not lack) and a bona fide celebrity (rather rarer).

But for a celebrity, he’s pretty down to Earth. Asked how he’s adjusting after moving back to Canada with his wife for the first time in 26 years (his assignment to NASA kept him either in Houston, Texas, or in Russia, liaising with the Russian space program), he laughs. “It’s complicated to move back,” he says. “We’ve bought a house, but we don’t have it yet. I’m getting my driver’s licence and my OHIP card, and mostly saying no to all the people who want me to do things. I don’t want to overburden myself.”

It’s a legitimate concern. Many astronauts have struggled after retiring. After working for years to achieve a spectacularly complicated, literally otherworldly goal, the transition back to an Earth-bound existence of real estate lawyers and driver’s licence applications has been emotionally devastating for some space age heroes (Buzz Aldrin, for instance, has often spoken of his emotional and substance abuse issues after being the second man to walk on the moon).

Hadfield, a healthy 54-year old, told me he hopes to have another “30 or 40 years” of good, productive work ahead of him. But that means taking care of himself, and Hadfield knows it. Since his return to Earth last May, and especially since he completed the physical recovery period required to reacclimatize to gravity, Hadfield says he’s had a dizzying array of offers to speak or consult or engage in advocacy, including for what he hinted were “contentious issues.” So far, he’s committed himself to some speaking engagements, and to be an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, about an hour’s drive from his new Toronto home.

And, of course, he’s got a book to promote.

Hadfield was meeting with me in a downtown Toronto office to discuss An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, set for release by Random House this week. The book, advanced copies of which were made available to the National Post, tells the story of Hadfield’s early life and his rise through, first, the Air Force, and then NASA, where he was assigned in 1987 as one of only a tiny handful of Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronauts. Even after being assigned to NASA, there was no guarantee he’d ever fly in space — some astronauts are never assigned a mission and spend their careers in a variety of ground support roles, waiting and hoping for their one big chance. For Hadfield, even being assigned to Houston was a dream come true. He’d become interested in space exploration as a young child, after he watching Neil Armstrong take his first small steps on the moon. Back then, Canada didn’t even have a space program, and NASA only accepted American citizens.

The story of how Hadfield became an astronaut is fascinating, and there are lessons in dedication and perseverance for everyone in it. But that’s the story found in his book — you can (and should) all read it for yourselves after it’s released on Tuesday. What I was curious about was what he thought of the overall state of the space program, and Canada’s role in it.

“We’ve still barely scratched the surface of space,” he said. “It’s still so expensive, and it’s expensive because we’ve decided that we’re not willing to kill people doing it. If we were as casual with human life as we were at the beginning of aviation or sailing ships, space travel would be a lot cheaper. But we’ve rightly decided to make saving lives a priority, and that means we have to move slowly. We’re still learning how to live out there.”

And he’s not convinced that commercial space flight is going to change that anytime soon, largely because we don’t truly have commercial space flight yet. While expressing his admiration of Space-X (and Pay-Pal) founder Elon Musk’s ambition and intelligence, Hadfield commented, “Space-X still only has one real customer: the government. They’ve built a great rocket, but private companies have always built the space vehicles for the government. In five years, maybe private companies or countries without a space program will start signing contracts with Space-X, and that will be new. But for now, you still need a space agency to have all the breadth of talents to make space exploration work.”

The exception to that, Hadfield notes, is with the concept of outright space tourism. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, for instance, is proposing to give paying customers a brief flight into space, including a few minutes of weightlessness, for a cool quarter million each. That, Hadfield concedes, would be genuine commercial space flight. But Virgin has been “18 months away” from its first flight for about 10 years, and is still 18 months away.

Even so, while we may not have true commercial space flight yet, the fact remains that the new private-sector players give Hadfield more options for continued employment in space-related endeavaours than astronauts of earlier eras. Hadfield says he has no plan to commit to one company, but feels he has a lot he can contribute as a consultant. Particularly on issues of safety. Commercial space flight has promise, he believes, but only so long as the companies don’t kill any of their future crews or passengers. Hadfield believes he can make that less likely.

But in the meantime, space exploration seems destined to remain in the hands of government space agencies. And Hadfield hopes Canada remains an active player, even as more nations (India and China, mainly) take an increasingly active interest in the final frontier. “There’s a new surgical tool at Foothill’s Hospital in Calgary,” he explained, “and they’re building another one in Sick Kids in Toronto. It allows a doctor to perform brain surgery, by remote, on a patient who is inside an MRI machine. And that’s a direct descendent of the Canadarm.” The Canadarm itself, Hadfield adds, was a product of Canada’s long-term commitment to space, which started with the launch of the Alouette 1 satellite in 1962, carrying a Canadian-invented form of communications antennae that became standard equipment on space vehicles.

Getting astronauts onto the station is important, Hadfield believes, and since astronaut time aboard the station is commensurate with each nation’s contribution to the program, that means opening our national wallet. But the real benefits of the space program, says Hadfield, are found right here on Earth, in Canada, making brain surgery safer.

“I didn’t pay for the station,” Hadfield said, “even though I got to go up there. I own just as much of it as every Canadian does, because we’ve all paid our share in taxes. So when I did my outreach efforts and posted photos on Twitter, I was just letting the people come in and see what they already paid for. I wasn’t telling them what I thought. I was just showing them photos of our beautiful planet or the state-of-the-art blood analysis machine that we were using in space and that was built in Quebec City. And people responded. They were proud of what we were doing.”

Will NASA want social media to be an even bigger part of the program in the future, I ask? And was Hadfield’s success anticipated?

He laughs. “Even I didn’t anticipate it. I was shocked at how well people responded, especially to the video.” He means his music video version of David Bowie’s A Space Oddity, which swiftly racked up millions of views. “NASA and the CSA aren’t stupid,” he adds with a grin. “We have smart people on the ground, and social media is already being worked into astronaut training.”

Being an astronaut has always required courage and brilliance, and as manned missions into space become increasingly long-term (months instead of weeks or even days), the ability to work as part of a team has become increasingly important. But Hadfield, through his outreach, has helped redefine what constitutes the right stuff. Affability and no small measure of charisma, not scientific achievement and fantastic photos of distant galaxies, may be what saves the space programs of the West from evisceration as populations age and budgetary pressures mount.

This is a big reason Hadfield believes that China must be brought into the international space programs, indeed, that a World Space Program must eventually replace competing national efforts or alliances of such programs.

“Space exploration is too big to leave to any one country. You need too many different skills. We need to build ourselves a Federation,” he jokes, warming my Trekkie heart.

It’s a big job — not unprecedented (our co-operation with Russia proves that), but big. But Hadfield has other missions now. He’s got a home to get move into and get just right, in time for his first family Christmas in Canada in decades. It’s a very Canadian end to this latest chapter in Hadfield’s life: After decades of hard work and millions of miles travelled, he’s moved to Toronto for the very first time.

By Matt Gurney/National Post/October 28, 2013