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Colonel Chris Hadfield: How life on the international space station prepared him for public speaking

Colonel Chris Hadfield: How life on the international space station prepared him for public speaking

“Good morning, Earth!” That is how Colonel Chris Hadfield—writing on Twitter—woke up the world every day while living for five months aboard the International Space Station. Through his 21-years as an astronaut, three spaceflights and 2600 orbits of Earth, Col. 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 humanity first walked on the Moon. Called “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong,” Col. Hadfield continues to bring the marvels of science and space travel to everyone he encounters. The Sydney Morning Herald caught up with Col. Hadfield to talk about how life as an astronaut prepared him for public speaking:

One of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s mantras is to “sweat the small stuff” because, apparently, it’s the tiniest details that can kill you when you’re in space.

He has even devoted a chapter to the topic in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

All of which makes it doubly embarrassing when, shortly after he calls precisely on time from his Toronto home, I discover that my digital recorder batteries are flat.

At that moment – if there was ever any doubt – I know I don’t have the right stuff to be a military test pilot and space station commander.

A couple of minutes and one quick battery change later we’re back talking and Hadfield is typically gracious about my stuff-up.

“No problem at all,” says the man who has been called the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong.

But that is probably selling him a little short – in this social media-saturated age he is, arguably, better known than Armstrong.

Hadfield has spent some 4000 hours in space and the pinnacle of his remarkable career was to serve as commander of the International Space Station.

Even then, he probably wouldn’t have garnered such mass appeal and recognition were it not for a video he made of him singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating around the ISS.

Yes, he’s that  guy.

Since retiring from space-flying two years ago, Hadfield has busied himself with a mass of projects.

He is working on his third book as well as an album of music he wrote and recorded while on the space station.

“That’s an interesting project,” he says. “Sort of the first complete body of art created off the planet.”

And there’s more.

“The first book [An Astronaut’s Guide] is being made into a pilot for a television show by Warner Bros in Hollywood and I’m teaching in university. I’ve played music I wrote with the Windsor Symphony and the Houston Symphony and next up is the Vancouver Symphony. And I’m on the Space Advisory Board of Canada helping the government set its space policies.”

Clearly, after orbiting the planet at 27,000km/h, Hadfield is in no mood to slow down.

“I don’t see any reason not to be [busy],” he says. “I’ve no desire to do nothing. I like to get stuff done.”

And now Hadfield is finding time to bring to Australia his series of successful stage shows.

“It’s a combination of stories and ideas and music, trying to express this latest phase of human exploration and the insight that comes from it and how you prepare for such a demanding adventure and what then are the returns from it, both on a personal level and a societal level,” he says.

Having sold out tours in the US, Canada and Britain, there is evidently a huge demand to hear about Hadfield’s unique experiences.

“I think people come for the stories, people come to hear someone who has been right to the very edge of human experience but I think what they take away is how does this matter, how is this useful or intriguing or fulfilling on a personal level,” he says.

“I’ve yet to have anybody tell me that they didn’t think it was worth the price of a ticket so hopefully it’s not disappointing too many people. I think the exchange of ideas is mutually beneficial.”

Ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, returning astronauts have had to face the expectations of those left behind.

I wonder whether Hadfield’s audience sometimes wants from him more than he is able to give?

“If there are some people hoping to come away as if they had met maybe the Dalai Lama or some sort of Maharishi who has found the innermost meanings of life then perhaps I will disappoint, but I don’t think people come for that reason,” he says. “I’m trying to be practical and useful based on a lifetime of work and experience. I don’t think life necessarily has a mystical meaning beyond that. The real point of it for me is to have a feeling of worth and a feeling of joy and  if there is a way to find that through conversation I’ll do my very best to impart it.”

One of the occupational hazards of being a former astronaut is that once people discover you’ve orbited the Earth more than 2500 times they want to ask questions. Lots of questions.

Hadfield says he has pretty much heard everything, including all the questions about bodily functions in space (he’s even made videos explaining how astronauts brush their teeth, shave, trim their nails and, yes, go to the toilet).

But he also appears genuinely happy to answer the same queries over and over.

“I see no harm in answering a question I’ve answered before,” he says. “I’m not answering it for me but it’s also fun when someone has thought about something and gained a perspective such that they ask me a question I may never have even asked myself.”

One thing Hadfield’s audience can expect is that he will have meticulously prepared every aspect of the evening. Before the show he runs through the entire presentation and even tries out the sightlines from various seats in the audience to check where best to position himself on stage.

“When you are going to be performing in front of people it’s a one-shot deal,” he says. “You want to get it right, you want to meet the objectives, you want people to have a great time and you want to have a back-up plan for things not working properly.”

However, spending time in space also allows you to put challenges such as public speaking into perspective.

“I’m in the lucky position of having done some extremely complex and dangerous things and hardly anybody when they just stand up to entertain and speak dies and bursts into flame so I don’t think it’ll be too bad,” he says.

There are obviously many factors behind Hadfield’s extraordinary post-astronaut success, not least his dexterity with social media and his abilities as a performer.

But one also suspects it has something to do with that accountant-next-door demeanour and  the Ned Flanders moustache that lulls us into thinking he is just a regular guy who happens to have done some really cool stuff.

But the truth is that Hadfield is different. Simply being selected to train as an astronaut makes him different enough but then having had the experience of flying in space sets himself apart from the rest of Earth-bound humanity.

“To successfully be able to fly a spaceship you have to have fundamentally changed who you are and then that becomes all-pervasive,” he says.

And while the small stuff, the detail, is never very far from his mind, he also remains a resolutely upbeat and big-picture guy.

“I’m not a risk taker,” he says. “I’m not interested in just getting adrenalin into my veins. But personally I think exploring the rest of the universe is worthwhile. If there is a way to … explore the rest of the universe in person and if through our own invention we can help figure out ways to make that safer … to me that’s a fascinating challenge.

“It strikes to the very core of me. It’s Hillary on Everest or it’s the Wright Brothers or it’s the four-minute mile or it’s Crickand Watson. It is applying human ability right to the very edge to do something that had been impossible right up until then.

“It’s the essence of living, to me.”

Nick Galvin/Sydney Morning Herald/June, 2015