Through his 21-years as an astronaut and three spaceflights, Colonel Chris Hadfield has become a worldwide sensation, harnessing the power of social media to make outer space accessible to millions and infusing a sense of wonder into our collective consciousness not felt since humans first walked on the moon. Called “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong,” Colonel Hadfield continues to bring the marvels of science and space travel to everyone he encounters. In a chat with The Guardian, Colonel Hadfield reveals his thoughts on space tourism, the beauty of New Zealand from above, why he always travels with a guitar and most importantly, what tastes better; space food or plane food:
Have you always liked to travel?
Yes. My father was an airline pilot so we travelled more spontaneously than a lot of families. On a Thursday we could decide to go somewhere like Barbados the next day for a long weekend. I’ve probably been to about 50 countries and with my work I’ve spent the majority of my time away from home for the last 20 years.
What’s the best place you’ve visited … on earth?
I really enjoyed going to the Caribbean, especially Barbados. It was just so different from Canada and felt somehow like a vacation should: a real escape, or another world. I rented a little open-top Austin mini with deckchairs in it and zipped around. It’s got all those sugar cane fields and the island is surrounded by reefs and sandy beaches. There’s nothing contrived about it, it’s just an inherently tropical place. As an airline pilot’s son I could get down there cheaply and stay there in a cheap hostel right by the beach.
Has your perception of any countries changed since seeing them from space?
Rather than just noticing the small things around you when you’re on the surface, you instead put things into context. You get a sense of the enormity of some places and the tinyness and fragility of others. You also get a sense of how they’re linked. When you’re on one of the Caribbean islands, sometimes it’s hard to picture how they fit in with the rest, but when you see them all joined together like a necklace from space you see the natural geographic connectedness of them all.
Was there any country you saw from space and thought: “I’ve got to visit”?
One place that I looked at a lot from space and which looks alluring is New Zealand, especially the North Island. It’s a big broad valley with a river flowing through it and you can see the wine-making dryness of the land. And there are some amazing natural formations in New Zealand: the deep fjords, the agricultural plains, the bizarrely symmetrical volcano, and the incredibly ripped-up geography that exists around Auckland. I could almost picture myself sitting there in that wine-growing valley and I think that someday I’ll complete that picture and be there in person.
Is it next on the list?
Well, it’s on the list … I’m not sure if it’s next on the list. I’m going to Portugal this afternoon!
What songs do you have on your travelling playlist?
What I like to do when I get to a new place is buy local music early on and listen to it while we’re driving around. I think it helps explain and illuminate the culture of where you are if local music is playing. It would be very insulating if I brought my own music with me; that’s sort of like travelling all the way to Istanbul and eating in a McDonald’s.
Do you always travel with a guitar?
Always. Even when I go to space stations. I took it to Mir when I went there in 1995 and it’s the same Yamaha FG 180 I hitchhiked around Europe with when I was 17. I mean, I’m obviously not the world’s best songwriter, or best musician, but it occurred to me a long time ago that the world’s best musician is not one person. Music is about the creation and the appreciation, not about the competition.
What other things do you always carry with you when you travel?
I’ve always tried to be a minimalist. Now, as an astronaut, I have to bring a Sharpie with me everywhere – so I have a pen to sign autographs.
Is there anywhere on earth that reminds you of space?
I don’t know how to express it. It would be sort of like saying: ‘Is there anywhere on earth that reminds you of scuba diving?’ You might say my bathtub, but you’d be doing it a disservice. Your fundamental laws of physics, or at least the law of gravity, have been repealed and there’s no way to simulate weightlessness on earth effectively. I guess sometimes I catch a view from a high place, maybe from a plane, which is reminiscent of what things look like from a million feet higher.
Did you have a favourite view of the planet while you were in orbit?
There are so many, and they constantly change. You could look at something a hundred times from space but the next time you come around the world suddenly it’s very different and gorgeous-looking, just because of the change of weather or the angle of the sun. I liked travelling over an emptiness and then coming across something, like going all the way across the Atlantic Ocean where there’s nothing – just a lot of blue – and then seeing Ireland rising out of the ocean.
And what about your favourite views on earth?
I love going through the mountains. I’ve driven through the Canadian Rockies and around the Italian Alps and to me it’s beautiful. The ruggedness of it and the fact that it’s up so high it catches the light differently every 10 minutes. I guess I like the big vertical contrasts. And I do like skylines of cities for the same reason. Houston and Toronto have distinctive and gracious-looking skylines.
Space travel is looking like a real tourist possibility in the future. What are your tips for anyone hoping to try it?
My advice would be to do your homework – because your time in space is probably going to be short. Imagine you’re going to Niagara Falls but you know you’re only going to have 45 seconds there, you’ve got to think about the right way to get the most out of the experience. If I’m only going to have three and a half minutes of weightlessness or whatever it’s going to be on Virgin Galactic, should I take pictures the whole time? Should I even bring a camera? Or should I bring experiments that I want to do while I’m weightless? Don’t just leave it up to random chance.
If we all start having space holidays, what could the passport stamps look like?
Well it’s going to matter where you take off and where you land, but there could be some stamp that says ‘Earth Orbit’. We actually do have space stamps though. We have a small rubber stamp that says ‘certified having been onboard the ISS’. I’ve stamped several of my personal items, bits of paper, music and stuff up there. It’s an old Russian tradition and I think it’s a good one. They used to bring a lot of letters up to the station and they liked to get their letters stamped on it, so I think that’s how it started.
How does aeroplane food compare to space station food?
It depends on the airline! Airline food is cooked in an oven and then kept warm. Space station food is often cooked in an oven and then thermo-stabilised, irradiated or dehydrated and then stored for a year or two before you even get to it. But there’s advantages and disadvantages to both. If you make good food and dehydrate it sometimes when you rehydrate it, it can still taste pretty good. Sometimes airline food can be a little bit bland because it’s been sitting in a warming tray for so long. They’re probably about on par really. If you don’t like airline food you’ll probably have the same impression of space station food. I would not fly to space for the food.