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Retired astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield has a new thriller out called The Apollo Murders. It's set in the spring of 1973, during a fictionalized Apollo 18 lunar mission.David Rossiter/The Canadian Press

Fighter pilot. Engineer. Astronaut. Musician. Professor. Entrepreneur. Kidlit author. Now you can add “hit novelist” to Chris Hadfield’s long list of accomplishments. His new thriller, The Apollo Murders – set in the spring of 1973, during a fictionalized Apollo 18 lunar mission – has been getting solid reviews. We talked to Hadfield while he hung out with his 13-week-old puppy, Henry, at his house near Toronto’s High Park.

You chose a pretty different post-military, post-astronaut trajectory. What made you take the path that you did?

I served as an astronaut for 21 years. And what my wife, Helene, and I noticed was that to get into the astronaut office is a relatively clear and extremely competitive path, but to leave is kind of poorly defined. And we watched several astronauts leave sort of badly, and they ended up floundering. So every day, when we were walking the dogs, Helene and I made a list of what we love and what gives us feelings of pride and joy – and none of them were flying in space. Then we said, “Okay, how can we build a life that includes as much of that stuff as possible?”

My life now is really fascinating. I’m on the advisory board for Virgin Galactic. I do consulting with big companies, and I’m working on a COVID detection technology company and a climate-risk mitigation company. I teach at universities. And now I’m settling down to research and write the next book in the serial. When I look at it all as a piece, it seems kind of overwhelming, but it’s all just deliberate choices of fun, challenging, hopefully worthwhile things to do.

You’ve written several books now. How different was it to dive into writing a novel as opposed to your autobiography?

Way different. Obviously The Apollo Murders is very factual and deeply tied with real events – I mean, almost 95 per cent of the book is real. It all really happened, and I’ve got the experience to bring in the reality of it. But I had to make so much stuff up. To write this book, I watched James Patterson’s Masterclass, and I read Stephen King’s On Writing, and of course everybody says that if you want to write a book, you’ve got to read more. So I reread all of this genre that I’ve always loved, but with a much more clinical point of view. Like, in Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal, almost nothing happened until the end, but it’s so tense and so beautifully wrought. And Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle and, and then serials like Sherlock Holmes, or Jonathan Kellerman with Alex Delaware, or John D. MacDonald, the way he wrote Travis McGee. And Tom Clancy and Dick Francis – even though his protagonist is always different, it’s always the same.

But then the final step, of course, is that you’ve got to just start writing.

Four new thrillers to dig into during the change in seasons, including Chris Hadfield's The Apollo Murders

What was it about this era, and reimagining the continuation of the Apollo missions, that was so attractive to you?

There was so much going on in the late 1960s and early ‘70s: huge civil and societal unrest, the rise of women’s rights, the Nixon administration and Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the start of the space shuttle program. So I was like, okay, it’s got to be the Apollo era. But then when I dug into what the Soviets were up to, they really did have a secret spy space station that was armed with a machine gun, and it mysteriously malfunctioned and came apart and de-orbited, and no one’s ever really said why. And on the surface of the moon, there was a relatively unknown Soviet rover that was finding stuff no one had seen before, and in the spring of ‘73 it also mysteriously malfunctioned and died. So this is a great little plot that I can weave my story into.

The sheer geography of the book is staggering. I mean, you’re covering Houston, Cape Canaveral, Moscow, Baikonur, the moon. Were you travelling or was this all written during COVID?

I didn’t travel at all. I did the whole thing during COVID. But I launched from the same launch pad as the Apollo crews on my two shuttle flights, the same launch pad as Yuri Gagarin on my Soyuz flight. I’ve been to a Russian space station – I helped build one. And I helped build an American space station. Obviously I haven’t been to the moon, but there’s tremendous video online. That’s one of the beauties of writing about something that happened in 1973 – there’s a lot of video.

You also lived in Star City, where Russia’s cosmonauts train, and you speak Russian.

I lived there for five years. I was NASA’s director in Russia for a couple of them. I studied Russian for 20 years, and I was the pilot of a Russian spaceship. I worked in mission control in Houston, and I was NASA’s chief CAPCOM [who communicates directly with astronauts]. I actually worked in mission control in Moscow. So I could bring it to life. I just needed to make sure I didn’t inadvertently jump it too forward in time.

Without giving too much away, would a guy like Chad Miller – one of the book’s villains – ever made it through NASA’s selection process, do you think?

Well, that was a big question I had to ask. I first went through the psychological screening to become a Canadian military fighter pilot. And then I went through the Canadian Space Agency psych evaluations as part of astronaut selection. And then I went through the NASA evaluations. And I mean, if you are a really smart, very high-functioning psychopath, you could fool those tests.

Look at Russell Williams. He was a highly respected and promoted base commander at Trenton, and an aircraft captain – not a fighter pilot, but a transport pilot – and to all outward appearances a model military officer. And it was only when he went so far as actually killing people that he got caught. And so I watched a bunch of the interrogation of Russell Williams when writing the book. Even while he was being interrogated, you can see the difference between his behaviour and his words and what must be going on in his mind – the screaming demons that were driving him. He had found a way to completely conceal those from even his wife, apparently. And so I just needed to give Chad a background that would have put those demons into him.

The accident off the top in which your protagonist, Kaz, loses his eye – that’s pretty graphic. When you were a test pilot, did anything like that ever happen?

That’s based on a real guy named Syd Burrows, who is still alive. He lives up in Comox, B.C. He’s 91. He was a fighter pilot in the 1950s, and he was flying an F-86 Sabre in Germany when a bird came through the canopy and took out his left eye. After he fully recovered, the Air Force let him fly in multicrew cockpits, and his call sign became Cyclops. I consulted with him for the book.

And then the actual scene over the Chesapeake and Patuxent River, that happened to me. I was going 550 knots in an F-18 doing a tower flyby. I got hit by a bird, but I flinched the airplane just ahead of the strike, and it just missed my canopy, but it destroyed my left vertical tail and I had to limp back in and land. So, I welded together a few stories in order to give Kaz that background.

As a fighter pilot, a test pilot, an astronaut, you’re used to operating at this insanely high level. What’s it been like to put out an act of naked creativity, knowing you’re opening yourself up to potentially bad reviews?

This was really, truly a launch for me. Every launch is, you know, you’ve done your work, and you have some confidence in your own ability, and you understand your purpose really clearly, but you’re about to take a big flyer. My publishers gave me an early deadline because they were obviously concerned – like, what if it turns out he just can’t do it? They needed to leave themselves enough time to bring in a professional writer to clean it all up and turn into something marketable. When I turned in my story at the end of January, I think within two days I could hear the gasps of relief. He can write!

So yeah, I’ve been quite trepidatious.

Tell me about your next project.

Unfortunately I wrote way too much for the first book – the first draft was 195,000 words, and it came down to 135,000. I headed off into some other stories I thought were going to be germane but ended up being derivative. So some of those stories are the genesis of the next one. It’s going to be chronologically sequential to The Apollo Murders, so the summer and fall of ‘73, early winter of ‘74. I really like Kaz and JW, and I was so delighted to discover Svetlana, because when I started writing, she didn’t exist at all. And then it occurred to me – a female cosmonaut! And she turned out to be a badass, so it would be nice to have her in the next one. There are several threads that lead that way, but you’re asking too soon because I don’t even know the answer.

That must be a hard thing for you to sit with – you’re a guy who’s always known where he’s going.

No, no, no, it’s great. That’s what exploration is all about. You get all your skills together. You have a long-term goal in mind, and then you discover everything along the way. And that’s what writing is about.

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