Sleeping, singing (preferably only in the shower) and brushing teeth are ordinary things we humans do in the comfort of our own home. But do them in space and they become the stuff of legend. Carl Sagan said, “A blade of grass is a commonplace on Earth; it would be a miracle on Mars.” Demonstrating the truth of this statement is social media superstar, astronaut extraordinaire, real life captain Kirk and all around professional awesome human being Chris Hadfield. The former commander of the International Space Station has been plastered over the internet for two chief reasons. His insanely hilarious videos about how to do regular human stuff in space (you try sleeping or brushing sans gravity) have gone massively viral. He also became the first astronaut to film a music video in space when he crooned to David Bowie’s, “Space Oddity” aboard the spaceship.
The second and far more awe inducing reason of his fame are the approximately 45,000 breathtakingly beautiful pictures he took of Earth while on his final space mission, from December 2012 to May 2013. The best of these pictures, as selected by him, have been reproduced in a volume titled “You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.”
While Hadfield’s charm and crazy sense of humour are genuinely endearing, there is so much more to this man than his social media posts. His larger than life persona belie decades of mind bending hard work, severe sacrifices and an iron strong determination to succeed. He is fascinating because he held the Universe up close and lived to tell about it: “The most fundamental way we communicate with each other is artistically. We talk about science in conferences and publish papers. However the real human connection is subtle but ethereal. It is through the stories we tell.”
From being the first Canadian to walk in space to now a prolific musician, Hadfield’s out of the world experiences hold some unmissable gems for those of us looking to navigate life with dignity, purpose and joy. In conversation:
Almost every kid world over dreams of becoming an astronaut at some point. How did this dream stay with you long after the gloss of childhood was over?
I don't think my dream had much to do with childhood. It was a resolution of what I wanted to accomplish in life. When I resolved to do it, it was impossible because Canada had no astronaut program. But then for the very first people who walked on the moon- that had been impossible until that morning. Then they walked on the moon and by bedtime that day, something impossible had become a reality. That was inspiring for me. For me it was not a matter of dreaming. It was a matter of choosing and doing things and turning myself into somebody different. It just became a long term goal about the decisions that I took every day and that is different from dreaming. It is more a guideline on how to make decisions on a daily and weekly basis so that it takes your life a certain way.
Lisa Bu, in her Ted speech, said "I have come to believe that coming true is not the only purpose of a dream. It’s most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from, where passion comes from, where happiness comes from. Even a shattered dream can do that for you." How have your dreams powered and guided you? In the light of ones that came true, and those that did not, what aspects of life are most important?
To be clear I did not fulfil my dream. I dreamed of walking on the moon, which I did not. So actually I have failed. But I consider myself immensely rewarded and am delighted with all of the things that have happened as a result of my pursuing that dream. I guess I sort of agree with what Lisa says. The important thing is to define for yourself a feeling of perfection. Think, 'If my life went perfectly, where would I be ten years from now?' Stick that up in the distance, but don't make that the definition of your measure of failure or success. As long as you proceed with that, and work accordingly, then something wonderful will happen regardless of whether it was your original dream or not.
Of being in the spaceship you said, in your Ted Speech, ‘You are in the grip of something that is vastly more powerful than yourself.’ To entrust yourself into the face of such uncertainty seems a terrifying thought to behold. Please walk us through what you were feeling in those moments. How did you keep your faith and determination grounded?
The thing is, we don't ride spaceships. We fly them. We are not passengers aboard a vehicle. We are immensely involved in determining our own fate. We have thousands of things that we have to do right, things which could easily go wrong, that would measure whether we succeed or not. How to deal with uncertainty is to recognize what areas you can control and you can make worse and then become as expert and competent in those things as possible. At the very core of it, you have to accept whether the risk is worth it or not. Way back early you have to think what you want to do and whether it is worth taking a risk for. Some people jump off buildings with little parachutes. I would never do that. What is the purpose of that? It doesn't teach anybody anything. It doesn't take you to the edge of knowledge. All it does is thrill you for a minute and then pull you back from the jaws of death. To me that's foolishness, taking a risk for no real purpose. But to explore the rest of the universe, to be one of the first few folks to leave Earth and explore migration for our species in another planet- to me that's worth taking some risks for.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Science is magic that works.” How powerful and surreal was it walking in space, beholding the universe in all its glory? Did anything in your rigorous scientific training prepare you for the sheer magic you would encounter?
I agree with Kurt in part but I think science is just organized curiosity. When I was walking in space, it was not really science as much as it was engineering and building. But it was also immensely beautiful. Far more breath-taking than anybody can imagine. Beautiful visually in that you are not in the world looking at the Universe. You are in the Universe with the world. That's new and it’s phenomenal and it’s overwhelmingly, stupefyingly beautiful. The magic of being alone in the universe for the first time, holding on with two fingertips- two fingertips is your whole link with the rest of humanity. You are not looking at the Universe from the world. You are in the Universe with the world, going around the sun. That's different. That's magical. It's like the earliest tiniest taste of something magnificently rich and new.
You cannot prepare for that type of feeling. All you can prepare for is the mechanical engineering scientific choreography of what you are doing. Then hopefully you will have time to appreciate the magnificence of what's happening.
You once tweeted Arthur Eddington’s quote, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” If the Universe is beyond our imagination and our time, why are we here and how we can make our lives matter in the face of such enormity?
Our lives only need to matter to us. They don't have to matter to the Universe. A three your old knows nothing of the Universe, or the world. To that mind, the world is stranger than they can imagine. But they are not worried about that. Their own world is very real to them. It’s very different from your world, but it’s still just as fulfilling and interesting. I don't worry about that. Trying to explain the Universe to ourselves is the problem. We are not smart enough or imaginative enough. All we can do is slowly figure out the Universe, like that three year old who is trying to figure out the world for him or herself. And maybe one day, quite like that three year old, we too will grow up. With every little piece of knowledge comes an improved self-awareness. To me that's the key part.
How do hardships and failures figure in your story?
Failure is in the eye of the beholder. I am realistic about it. I try and be as good at things as I can. I spend most of my time preparing for things, so that when the time comes I am the best I can possibly be. If something went wrong and I get the chance to do it, hopefully I'll do it better the second time. But mostly you get only one chance to do things. The real key is not to dwell on the past things that did not go well. It is to dwell on preparing for things that are coming in the future, to make them go as well as possible. All of us fail all the time. The best anyone can hope for is partial success.
Through all these wondrous experiences and the consequent shifts in perspective you have encountered, what have been some of life’s most enduring lessons?
The fact that my partner and I have lead a shared life for thirty nine years has had the most significant impact in my life. I met my wife in high school. Relationships are somewhat unnatural and difficult and require excruciating compromises. The hardest part about being in a relationship is having to change yourself. But they are also the best thing about life. Living out my dreams to the best of my ability and looking back and feeling that I have done my job well- that feeling is unparalleled. The last, and most important part, is to keep challenging yourself at all times. Have a full plate of things that you want to accomplish every single day and try and do them as well as you can. Give yourself both the purpose and the opportunity to succeed on the most frequent basis that you possibly can.
All images belong to Chris Hadfield