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the ladder

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield speaks onstage at Meridian Hall during the Elevate Tech Festival in Toronto on Sept. 24, 2019.Elevate Tech Festival /Handout

Col. Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space and command the International Space Station. Known to many as the viral YouTube sensation that covered David Bowie’s Space Oddity on his acoustic guitar while floating in the International Space Station, he’s also a New York Times bestselling author, public speaker and Canadian icon.

When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?

I grew up on a farm away from normal city influences, but I had books, and I read comic books originally and then science fiction. When I was 7, Star Trek came out on TV, and even on a lousy TV with bunny ears we could get Star Trek.

About the same time I was old enough to realize that Yuri Gagarin had flown in space. This was actually happening. Imagine if you were a big fan of X-Men, and then you find out it’s real, then one of them went by your window. It was like, “you can really do that? I want to be that person.”

In July of 1969, when they walked on the moon, I decided then to turn myself into an astronaut, just before turning 10. It’s shaped my decision-making from then on, and still does.

When you say turn yourself into an astronaut, what does that mean exactly?

I had no idea. There were no role models that I knew of, or at least none in Canada, so I just looked externally at other astronauts. I thought, they’re all in reasonable shape, so I’ll keep myself in good shape. They fly in space; okay, I can fly. So I joined the air cadets and I learned how to fly. Then I realized Buzz [Aldrin] had a PhD. I didn’t even know what a PhD was – nobody in my family went to university except for my grandpa – so okay, I’ll go to university. I need to learn other languages; I need to learn to scuba dive, I needed to learn a lot of things.

It wasn’t a dogged, single-minded pursuit; it was more of a road map of choosing what to do next. Every weekend you get to choose what you do, so what am I going to do this weekend? Well, if I want to be an astronaut, this weekend I’ll read about how the moon was formed. It just sort of gave a path for making choices within my life.

Did you have a backup plan?

Never did I expect or count on being an astronaut. I never made it a measure of personal failure or success; I just used it as a way to help choose what to do next.

So many of the astronauts are engineer military test pilots. That all sounds cool to me. I like flying, I like engineering, why don’t I try to do that? I probably won’t get to be an astronaut, but being a military test pilot? What a cool job. I could do that for the rest of my life. And if all that fails, I’ll go be an airline pilot.

I went through pilot training, became a fighter pilot and then got selected for test pilot school. While I was working as a test pilot on exchange with the U.S. Navy I did a master’s degree through the University of Tennessee, always thinking, “I’m getting closer, but I’m not there yet.”

And then incredibly enough, in the winter of ’92, the brand new Canadian Space Agency stuck an ad in all the papers in the country that said; “Wanted: Astronauts.” So I applied.

You’ve had a lot of formal training, but what are some of the important soft skills you need in order to become an astronaut?

When you get into the selection process all the hard skills are a given. Yes, you’ve got all these things, but what type of person are you? I’ve run or helped run multiple astronaut selections, so I’ve thought about it a lot, and the soft skills are really important.

If you really want to boil it down to the key question it’s, “is this a person I’d want to live on a spaceship with, or not?” Are they interesting? Are they self-effacing? Do they put other people’s needs ahead of their own? Do they need to be entertained all the time?

You need to have the requisite skills – space ships are complicated – but assuming you have all those hard technical skills, then the interpersonal skills come in. Have they ridden across the Atlantic? Have they run a charity program in their community? If you’re going to spend six months on a space station or move to the moon with them, you want it to be a person with some depth.

So playing guitar isn’t a requirement?

It’s not a requirement, but multifaceted interests and activities are.

Who maybe shouldn’t be an astronaut then?

A person who is not willing to change who they are.

Obviously, you need to meet the basic requirements for size – you may be better suited to the NBA or being a jockey than you are to flying a space ship, just because seats and suits only come in certain sizes – so size, medical health, insatiable curiosity and an absolutely tenacious patience in life.

I was an astronaut for 21 years, and I flew in space for six months, so for 20-and-a-half years I did thankless, unheralded, demanding work seven days a week. It wasn’t so I would have my moment in the sun, but because it was necessary to succeed. It requires someone who is extremely focused and patient.

At the end of the day, you better have a burning desire to be an astronaut, or you won’t hack it.

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