Imagine sitting at a desk and then suddenly you’re dangling off a cliff, your mind too distracted with amazement to process what just happened.
That, according to retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, is what it’s like to leave the claustrophobic confines of a spacecraft for the “stupefying” beauty of the universe – a feeling he first confronted during a mission in 2001, when he spent 14 hours and 54 minutes floating freely in space.
“You nurse yourself out of this hole and yank yourself into the universe, and then it just explodes into existence around you,” he said during a sit-down interview in Toronto this week. “You can’t smell, or touch or taste it or anything, but visually it’s everything. The world is there, it’s pouring by at eight kilometres a second in all its kaleidoscopic, unbidden glory, and the universe is right there on the other side of you. Everything – forever – is right there, and you’re holding on with one hand in the middle.”
Of the 7.2 billion people on this planet, only about 200 – or 0.0000028 per cent – can describe that otherworldly experience of spacewalking. In 2001, Mr. Hadfield was the only Canadian who could. Even now, looking out the window to assess “an interesting contrail” – white jet-stream vapour – it’s apparent he still sees the world differently.
This summer, after 144 days aboard the International Space Station, where he tweeted and sent videos down to Earth, Mr. Hadfield announced the end of his 21-year Canadian Space Agency (CSA) career. But now that he has bought a home in Toronto and is launching a book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, he doesn’t pine for orbit. He’s accomplished much and doesn’t believe in longing for the past.
Born in Sarnia, Ont., in 1959 – the year NASA selected its first astronauts – he was 9 when he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. “That little nine-year-old kid decided what I was going to do when I grew up,” Mr. Hadfield explained with a grin, leaning in as if to tell a secret. “That same nine-year-old kid is sitting on my shoulder right now, and when I say out loud that I commanded a spaceship, he just laughs at me. On the space station, it occurred to me, ‘I just want to run around … and say ‘Wheeeeeeee!’”
That boy was raised on a corn farm, but he grew up to serve as a fighter pilot capable of intercepting Soviet bombers. In 1992, he was chosen as one of four CSA astronauts from a pool of 5,330 applicants. Three years later, he went to space for the first time, and six years after that he became the first Canadian to spacewalk.
The 54-year-old married father of three mostly split his time between Star City, Russia, and Houston, where he was chief of robotics after the Columbia space shuttle disaster that killed seven of his friends and colleagues. A singer-songwriter with nearly one million Twitter followers, he recorded David Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating weightlessly in space.
Mr. Hadfield, the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station, is indeed an anomaly among latter-day astronauts: Earthlings actually know who he is. When asked whether the space agencies were supportive of his social media outreach, he said the Canadians bravely backed him and NASA has since started training astronauts to do more of it. But he doesn’t plan to translate his celebrity status into a political career, saying definitively, “No, I’m not interested in elected politics.”
His book, due out Oct. 29, is part memoir, part self-help, and it’s written much as he speaks: descriptively on the one hand, and on the other peppered with canned sayings that seem to genuinely guide his life.
One minute, he’s describing his video chat from space with Neil Young (the musician was in his 1959 Lincoln Continental, explaining that he never writes songs, he only writes them down) and detailing how to brush your teeth in the absence of gravity (catch a floating glob of water with your toothbrush, apply toothpaste, Velcro the tube to the wall, brush and then swallow). The next, he’s discussing the merits of preparing for the worst, making a list of what you want out of life, not dwelling on the past, “doing the right thing.”
For the record, he has no doubt life exists elsewhere – how could we be alone, he asks, in a universe with untold galaxies? “I don’t understand how life got on Earth, so I sure can’t predict how life [emerged elsewhere],” he said. “But I’m ready to be surprised.”