Astronaut Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian to walk in space.
But he hasn’t rested on his laurels since retiring from those “astronomical” heights — including flying two space shuttle missions and serving as commander of the International Space Station.
Many fans remember him from the viral YouTube video of him performing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which has garnered more than 35 million views.
But since retirement in 2013, Hadfield has proven to be a man of many talents with occupations ranging from musician (he released an album of songs he recorded on the space station), author (a New York Times bestselling book), professor (University of Waterloo) and television personality.
His latest venture is Miniverse, a documentary on the solar system that airs in Canada on the online video service CuriosityStream on Monday.
The unconventional astronomy lesson is illustrated by Hadfield taking a road trip through the United States, joined along the way by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku; Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute, and Laura Danly, the curator of the Griffith Observatory.
The Star talked to Hadfield about the series.
The Miniverse concept seems to be right out of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Except it’s scientists in cars, but without the coffee. How involved were you with the concept?
(Laughs) How do you communicate something like the concept of the solar system? I guess one way was to frame it by making it a trip across the United States. Right now we’ve never had so much information about our solar system from landing on a comet to what’s going on in Mars. This helps people to have scope, to get a fundamental grasp of what’s in our neighbourhood.
You had the rock stars of the astronomy world travelling with you. I was waiting for Adele to show up for a duet.
They were three very different people. Derrick is a really lovely guy and so devoted to the idea of making people more scientifically literate. Laura is doing the same thing out of the Griffith Observatory. And you have Michio trying to figure out the universal theory like everyone else, and doing a terrific job of sharing the wonder of it. We started on the shores of the Atlantic with Michio and ended on the Santa Monica Pier with Laura. It was a clever way to make a complex idea easier to grasp.
This is very sad since we are talking about important, big picture science. But one of my big take-aways is that there is actually no space ice cream on the space station. Those freeze-dried ice cream pellets are too crumbly.
True. That stuff we sell in science centres wouldn’t work without gravity. It’s too dusty and it crumbles. It’d get in your eyes and into the computers, so unfortunately it doesn’t work for space. However, for my first space flight we helped build Mir (space station) with a Canadian and Russian crew and a German astronaut. We had to bring up a compact electric freezer. We were bringing an empty freezer and we said it would be foolish to launch with an empty freezer. We needed to be good house guests. So we brought ice cream. They were quite concerned we would confuse the frozen urine samples with ice cream though.
My other takeaway is that you scientists have a scary amount of potentially useless Trekkie knowledge. You’re making all these references along the highway in Los Angeles with astronomer Laura Danly for example and she’s giving it right back. How influential was early science fiction and fantasy for you?
Very influential! It’s the whole idea of what inspires you to explore. It might be a comic book. When I was a kid I read Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and I just reread it again. It was fascinating. It was an amazing adventure. It was science and discovery, but it was also about the human ability to act. Star Trek and Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey were all inspirations for me. I recently did a show with Bill Shatner on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. He was Buck Rogers for me. He wasn’t real at all, but immensely inspirational. That crossover from fanciful inspiration to reality is where invention happens. Like Star Trek, you have to think of a crazy idea before it happens.
Your Book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, has been optioned as a sitcom by an American network. The story is ostensibly about your life. But as you know, things get weird in TV land. Have they turned you into a billionaire playboy who can shoot phasers out of your wrists? Where are we now?
(Laughs) They approached us, we pitched it to four different networks. ABC and Warner Bros. bought the idea. They wrote a pilot, but they didn’t film it so far. Someone told me that one in a hundred make it to full pilot before making it to the screen. So I’m not sure if it will ever get onscreen! But I’m not too worried about it. The book is in 22 languages; it’s been adopted by universities, and it’s had a wide reach and impact.
You’re onto your second act with so many diverse interests. I’m sure you’ve been approached more than once, but would you consider running for public office? It’s not unheard of to have a Canadian astronaut in government.
I think I’m probably on my fifth act. It’s a really interesting stage of life for me. I worked for the federal government for 35 years. I’ve had a lifetime of public service. And 26 years outside Canada. I’m very much enjoying trying to be a productive Canadian citizen again. I’m really enjoying where I am right now and have no desire to get into politics.
You’ve always been as much a student as an educator over the years. What did you learn from doing Miniverse?
For sure, we’re always students. Hardly any of us knows anything. We take a lot for granted. I learned that a Tesla is a lot of fun to drive. Also, if you change the licence plates on your car and drive to New York, someone will pull you over and ask you why. We put ROCKET on the back because it was kind of a fun thing to do. Also, just talking to the astronomers about how they see the universe and what’s important and interesting to them is really cool.
What do you hope viewers will ultimately take away from this?
The delight of discovery, an improved understanding of the neighbourhood we live in. And the immensity of our solar system. Also, the incredible variety of the planets that are in it. I think it’s interesting to look in the mirror at ourselves and find this great place we happen to live in.