Chris Hadfield is a retired Canadian astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, where he spent five months earlier this year. His book is An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. The man who sang Space Oddity aboard the ISS talks about sharing the realities of space flight and how everyone can use an astronaut’s mindset to live better.
Jacob Aron: Have you adjusted to life back on Earth?
Chris Hadfield: Mostly. To see the space station fly over and, in my head, connect that with having lived off the planet for half the year inside it—I’ve still not completely rationalized how that could be. But for the most part, I feel normal.
JA: Watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon inspired you to become an astronaut. What might those you have inspired achieve?
CH: I predict that those youngsters hoping to follow in the same footsteps I did will have a chance to live on the space station for the next decade or 15 years. Then, from all we learn there, we will move out and learn a lot of things on the moon. After a few generations, hopefully we will have better engines and power sources and truly be able to boldly go where no man has gone before—all the way to Mars and beyond.
JA: As an astronaut, you have taken advantage of modern technology like social media, but would you trade it in to be an early pioneer?
CH: I was so lucky as I got to do both. Back on my first flight 18 years ago, my version of social media was a ham radio and a film camera. I took photographs and had lots of interesting thoughts about it but there was no way to share it.
But looking back, when Neil and Buzz [Aldrin] walked on the moon, it was one of the earliest examples of social media. We took a rare, new human event and turned it into reality TV. It was live—showing every little warp and bump and comment. And it had an enormous impact because they shared the newness and humanity and rawness of the experience.
JA: Was showing the humanity in space what prompted your Space Oddity music video?
CH: Absolutely. Up there we aren’t fretting about being alive, we are trying to get all the work done, rationalize this amazing experience and fold it into our normal selves. It was natural to have music up there. The key to the Space Oddity recording was that this song had touched generations as a cultural reflection of technological capability. To be able to take that song and reflect it into the environment that it ostensibly targeted or was written for helped people rethink the whole thing. Spaceflight isn’t just about doing experiments, it’s about an extension of human culture.
JA: Your book describes how people can use an astronaut’s mindset to live better on Earth.
CH: “What’s the next thing that’s going to kill me?” is a mantra for pilots and astronauts. A lesson from it is to look at things you are afraid of, and figure out why. Don’t sit there hoping things won’t happen because you don’t want to get ready for them. They will happen whether you get ready or not.
JA: You have now retired as an astronaut, but would you return to space on a tourist flight?
CH: Sure, it would be fun. Right now it’s not possible, but eventually they will be successful. It’s very expensive, though. I’m not a wealthy person and I don’t think that I would be able to prioritize that much money to go for a ride to a place that I have already lived. But if the price comes down or I win a lottery or something, why not?