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Celebrated Astronaut Chris Hadfield: Curiosity is “the core of everything”

Celebrated Astronaut Chris Hadfield: Curiosity is “the core of everything”

Colonel Chris Hadfield decided at the age of 9 — when he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon — that he was going to become an astronaut. It took 26 years to reach that goal, but now Hadfield is one of the most celebrated space travelers of our time. He’s flown three missions, helped build two space stations, was the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, and made nearly 100 YouTube videos in space — including a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that went viral. Since retiring from his astronaut duties last year, Hadfield has not slowed down. He has published a New York Times bestselling book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Living on Earth, and is helping Warner Brothers and ABC turn it into a sitcom. Plus, he’s now on the cusp of publishing his second book, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes, which offers readers a magnificent photographic view of something very familiar: Earth. Salon spoke to Chris about the book, the importance of human curiosity, what’s next for NASA, and *spoiler* the return of “Space Oddity” to the Internet:

In the introduction to your new book, you said you hoped it would take people out of their normal vantage points and into orbit, that you wanted them to view the Earth in a different way. How well do you think it captures the sensation of seeing Earth from the International Space Station?

When I made it, Sarah, I was hoping that it would be like inviting somebody to the window to go around the world. Because I’ve been around the world almost 26,000 times, and you get so familiar with it, and so aware of it. And there’s this special feeling as you’re working away in the laboratory in the space station, and you steal a little bit of time, and you pull yourself, hand over hand, and go down into the Cupola — which is like pushing your head into a big observation bubble or periscope — and suddenly you’re looking out at the world.

And the idea of the book was to take someone in there with me and show them the planet like a tour guide. And say, “Wait until you see what’s coming up next! And look at this! And look at that! And look at the history and the geology, and what we’ve done, and what nature has done, and how they blend together. Just look and see and maybe start to understand the world.”

So for me to grab that book now, it takes me immediately right back there. I can almost hear and smell what it’s like inside the Cupola. And because it’s a big bulging window, you can look ahead of where you’re going and you can turn around quickly — weightlessly — and look where you’ve been. And then you can look straight down. On most airliners there’s no way to look straight down; you’re always looking out the side. So for me it’s extremely evocative and reminiscent of what exactly it feels like on the space station, experiencing the world.

That’s amazing. I’m trying to imagine weightlessness and pushing yourself into the Cupola.

In fact you don’t even push, you very delicately, just on your fingertips, gently pulling yourself, just one little brushing motion after another through the station, and then down until you’re floating weightless, and your head’s down, facing the world. And because you’re facing down at the world from above, as you come in suddenly, it sort of feels like the world is above you, because it just sort of seems that way. It’s completely arbitrary. You can chose any direction you want.

Do you ever miss it? 

I don’t spend much time missing anything. I flew in space three times, on three different rocket ships and helped build two different space stations, and had some incredible experiences in space, but a vast number of experiences on Earth, too. And they’re more like what’s allowed me to appreciate better what I’m doing now. So I don’t sit around thinking, “It used to be good and now it’s not.” You know? Or, “now everything is bad because I had a good experience before.” It’s not like that.

It’s more that this is just a great privilege and richness that I’ve been privy to — that I’ve been lucky to see — and that was really a big motivation in the book: to try and share experience as best I could. And since [the pictures that comprise the book] were pictures I took onboard the International Space Station, the book doesn’t belong to me. And that’s why the significant proceeds go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation as well, because it’s not a personal-profit kind of venture. This is something that ought to benefit everybody, in an effort to really just show people what it’s like. Both for the joy of it, and the beauty of it, but also for the perspective of it.

You tend to get really focused on your own little circle — your own little two-dimensional part of the world that you live on — and it’s easy to forget how connected and how beautiful it is and how varied it is and how we’re all sort of in it together.

Did you have a major interest in the science of space growing up? What compelled you to spend those 26 years becoming an astronaut?

I think it’s reflected in the dedication of the book, actually, where I talk about being “curious about the world.” To me, science is just organized curiosity. It’s just trying to understand how everything works and how it all fits together and why. And why does one thing happen? Why does water freeze? Why is the sky blue? What’s beyond the atmosphere? Why are some stars yellow? And some stars blue? And some stars sort of red? And why is Mars red? And are we alone in the universe?

Those are all just curious questions. And science is just a way to try and figure out the answers — just trying to organize that curiosity, and build on the knowledge of it. To me that’s the core of everything. If you’re not curious about the world, and about our place in it, then you’re missing such an important part of life. You’re not growing and expanding and increasing your appreciation of it.

So it goes back to, “Do I miss being in space?” Well, I didn’t go just for the stimulation of it. I went as an extension of what I’ve done my whole life. I was an engineer and a test pilot. And those jobs are all about curiosity. How do you make something work? How do you fix it? How do you understand it? And how do you make it better? Or safer? Or more complete? How does it fit in with everything else?

And for me, being an astronaut is sort of the ultimate expression of that, in that I’m one of the very first human beings to go see the universe in person, to start trying to understand it directly. Not just looking through a pencil-thin telescope, but trying to actually see what it means for us. And to solve some of the problems.

How do we make it possible to go further than the atmosphere? How do we recycle water? How do we generate electricity? How do we protect ourselves? How do we communicate? How do we stay sane? And more importantly, what does it mean to us? Why go? Why explore? Why follow our curiosity? To me that’s all one long, same continuum that was sparked by explorers of a previous generation —the first people to walk on the moon.

It has really been fundamental to all the choices I’ve made in my whole life.

I wanted to talk about your ventures since you’ve been back from the ISS. You have put out two books, and you’re working with ABC on a television show, and you did that amazing Canada Day video.

The first book I wrote, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” was a New York Times bestseller and Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times and actually it’s in 14 languages. It’s really had a lovely impact all around the world. And as you say, Warner Brothers and ABC are working together to turn it into a sitcom, a television show, which is just kind of amazing for me. And then I started working on the second book, here, and it’s coming out in just a dozen days or so.

Sort of the two of them go together — one talking about what is useful about space flight for us. How does it matter for people on Earth? And that’s what the whole first book is about. What is useful about the experience of exploring for everybody on Earth? What do you get out of it personally; what do we get out of it as people? The second book is how to see it better. To try and understand how we all fit into this thing together.

Both of those things have been part of what I’ve worked on for the last 21 or 22 years as an astronaut. But I also do many other things: I teach at a university, I do a lot of public speaking, I host a lot of charity things. This week I’m helping kick off the Pan-American Games and a big charity thing called We Day.

And then there’s a lot of music. As you say, I did that Canada Day video, but I also wrote a song with Ed Robertson that’s been on the radio. And I wrote a whole suite of music on the Space Station, and it’s been made full orchestral. I’ll be performing with the Windsor symphony later this month doing a four-concert series of original music. And there’s probably more books in the works. There’s all sorts of projects and interesting things going on. I’ve always been busy and pursuing things that I think are worth while and important.

So it keeps me off the street. [Laughs]

Is that why you started to make the YouTube videos on the International Space Station?

Well, that was really — I had already been an astronaut for 20 years when I got to the Space Station, and I had spoken in many, many hundreds, if not thousands, of schools over 20 years. And I really had a feel for what people are actually curious about. What are they interested in? What are the common questions that everyone wants to know? Well, they want to see. They want to understand. They’re curious. So while I was on the station, I thought, “If I get time, I’m just going to make a video about this.”

And the Canadian Space Agency was terrific. They hired a videographer, so I could just take a bunch of shots and send them down and she would put them together into little two-minute YouTube clips that explained it to everybody. And we made almost 100 YouTube videos, while I was on the station. Those videos are used in schools and science centers and at the astronaut camp. They’re used all over the place. I get notes from teachers every day talking about it. Just because I was in a very rare position to explain something that’s very new for us as a species.

I’ve watched a bunch of them: The making a peanut butter sandwich in space, the recycling water from an astronaut’s urine. They’re great. And then, obviously, I’ve watched your cover of “Space Oddity.” But that one was taken down! Will that ever come back to the Internet?

Oh your timing is good. It’ll be very soon!

Oh my goodness!

I’m not sure exactly when, but very soon. It’s just a matter of honoring all legal contracts. It’s somebody else’s intellectual property, and you can’t just steal it and give it away. And I didn’t write that song, all I did was perform it in a new way and in a new place. And the people we’ve been working with, David Bowie and his publisher and his legal folks, they’ve all been really good. It just takes time. We’ve just about got it all organized and legal, and it’ll be back up quite soon.

My son Evan is the one who made that video. He worked with space agency people and a small team of people. But it was all his idea, and I was talking with him late last night as we were sorting out the final details to get it put back on YouTube. So we’re almost there.

Any last parting words of advice for the planet?

Well, we’re all in this together, Sarah. Whether we think about it or not.

By Sarah Gray/Salon/October, 2014