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Colonel Chris Hadfield: ‘Performing Space Oddity from the Atmosphere Gave David Bowie Great Joy’

Colonel Chris Hadfield: ‘Performing Space Oddity from the Atmosphere Gave David Bowie Great Joy’

“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, Colonel 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,” Colonel Hadfield continues to bring the marvels of science and space travel to everyone he encounters. The Telegraph spoke to Colonel Hadfield about his new book, and his life as an astronaut:

He’s been propelled into space by burning hydrogen, and spent six months of his life orbiting earth at 17,500 miles per hour – but Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station, says even astronauts get scared sometimes.

“There’s this funny Hollywood representation that we’re all wild,” says Hadfield, 57, who was catapulted to international stardom after a video of him playing guitar and singing Bowie’s Space Oddity, filmed in orbit, went viral.

“But I am not a risk taker.”

“People always ask me whether launching into space is scary, not realising that things aren’t scary – people are scared. I try to be measured in my risks, and so far it’s worked.”

Hadfield’s theories about dealing with danger shape much of his first tome, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, as well as forming the storyline of his latest work, The Darkest Dark. His first children’s book, it charts a young boy’s fear of the night-time and how he eventually overcomes it – a relationship Hadfield unpicks with gusto.

“We’re all more afraid than we let on, but in order to accomplish anything worthwhile in life, you have to be able to cope with that.”

With 21 years as an astronaut under his belt, it’s fair to assume that Hadfield knows what he’s doing – but he’s endured his fair share of scares, and hardship, along the way. It was Hadfieldwho took care of the family of fellow astronaut Daniel Tani when his mother was killed while he was at the space station.

In 2003, two years after his second trip into the atmosphere, he lost seven friends when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated in the skies during its return to earth, killing all on board. Again he found himself comforting and supporting his fellow astronauts’ spouses and children – including the commander of that mission, Rick Husband, a close friend who had been his classmate at test pilot school.

The implications of Columbia, which was caused by “our own lack of knowledge and bad decision-making,” still weigh heavily. “Most people just focus on the six months that you were off the planet, as if that was the majority of the job, when it’s a tiny part. The real job is the years on earth of preparation, training and intense study, and supporting other astronauts.”

After Columbia, with public support for the space programme plummeting, he was part of NASA’s effort to identify what had gone wrong and prevent another incident occurring.

“My kids were more fearful by the time of the third flight because they realised what the real consequences were,” he recalls. Subsequent simulations involved Hadfield dying during the flight.

“My wife (Helene, his childhood sweetheart) came to some of those simulations. You have to think: ‘Okay, he just died, what are we going to do? Who’s going to phone who?’. That changes your mentality; you can either sit shivering with your fingers crossed, or understand that this is a dangerous thing, but that the rewards outweigh the negatives, and if they don’t, we know how to deal with it.”

It was Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon walk that drove a then nine-year-old Hadfield’s interest in one day leaving earth. Watching the Apollo 11 mission from his neighbour’s cottage on Stag Island, Ontario, he decided “with absolute clarity” what he wanted to be when he grew up.

There was just one problem: there was no space agency to speak of in his native Canada (it was later set up in 1989) and only American astronauts could apply to NASA’s programme. After leaving high school, he underwent jet training with the Canadian Armed Forces, and spent a year at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in southern California, before being selected as one of four Canadian astronauts (from a pool of over 5,000) in 1992.

His first trip into space was in November 1995; he has subsequently held roles from NASA’s Director of Operations in Star City, Russia, to Chief of International Space Station Operations at the organisation’s headquarters in Houston, Texas.

His expansive range of outposts resulted in a peripatetic upbringing for his three children Evan, Kyle and Kristin. Was it worth the upheaval? “I think if you total the number of hours spent with your children, most people with jobs would be shocked at how short they are. I coached all three of my kids’ football teams and spoke at their schools, but I also travelled and worked a fair bit – the entire purpose of your life isn’t just sitting at home and playing with your child; you have to be providing also.”

There were perks to being a public figure, of course – even if taking an eight-year-old Evan to the barber in preparation for a trip to the White House was met with an unimpressed response of “again?”

Hadfield estimates that he has met “most” of the presidents to have taken office during his time as a spaceman, but his notable connections were celebrated on an even wider scale during his final mission, to the International Space Station, in 2013.

Hadfield’s stunning pictures of Earth, and chronicles of daily life aboard the ISS, made him a Twitter phenomenon, with 1.76m followers to date.

After being tweeted by William Shatner, beloved for captaining Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise, so began a social media exchange with other space favourites, both real and fictional, with the likes of Leonard Nimoy and Buzz Aldrin joining in.

The idea to record Space Oddity came from his son, Evan, and receiving the seal of approval from the Starman himself was a personal highlight for Hadfield. “Bowie loved the song and that was the best reaction for me,” says Hadfield, who announced his retirement as an astronaut and military pilot shortly after returning to earth. “For him to have it performed in a place he’d always dreamed of, and in a way that was sensitive to the ideas of the song, gave him great joy.” The pair never met, but they exchanged enthusiastic messages after Hadfield’s zero-gravity rendition was posted on YouTube – it has since been viewed more than 33 million times.

As for a follow-up performance of Life on Mars? Perhaps not, given Hadfield has now hung up his space helmet – and it’s even less likely to occur from the red planet itself. “It’s a wonderful long term idea,” he says of travelling to Mars, “but we have an awful lot of things we’re going to get wrong between now and then, and we have to allow ourselves not to kill everybody every time.”

He may not be visiting another planet anytime soon, but Hadfield’s ‘retirement’ looks like anything but – some of his numerous projects include hosting a TV show, leading an 18-day expedition to the high Arctic and helping to select the next class of Canadian space-dwellers. What words of wisdom does he have to pass on to the next generation? “Being an astronaut is very complex and hugely demanding – more so than I think anybody on the outside knows,” he reflects. “But being able to explore the universe? That’s a risk worth taking.”

Charlotte Lytton/Telegraph/October, 2016