- 19 Feb 14
Dr. Chris Hadfield became an internet sensation when he delivered a fine cover version of David Bowie’s 1969 single 'Space Oddity' from the International Space Station. Here, he talks about his love for his adopted country Ireland, attempts to answer the eternal question – "Is there life out there?" – and discusses the importance of emailing David Bowie.
Chris Hadfield is not your everyday astronaut. During his time on Expedition 35, he successfully brought the day-to-day story of the International Space Station to millions, in a way that no space traveller had ever done before, achieving worldwide recognition as a result and becoming a viral video star, with a Twitter following of over a million.
Through the power of social media, Hadfield gave everyone with an internet connection a chance to sample daily life on the space station in real time. It was one small step for man, one giant leap for the Twitterverse. In the process, Hadfield got people excited about space exploration again, while also humanising it. With his zero gravity rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ he made it not just exciting but fun.
Chris is no stranger to Ireland, of course. His snaps of this island from space captured the imagination of the public here. Now back on terra firma, he has graciously accepted a role as cultural ambassador for the country. His book An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth tells the story of his incredible journey, of becoming an astronaut and of his space missions thus far. It has become a global bestseller. Last July, he retired as an astronaut...
While in space you did a cover version of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. How did that come about?
It started out as a project with my son. It then turned out to be far more beautiful and musically interesting than either of us thought it was going to be. From there it grew into some kind of viral, worldwide – how would I put it – phenomenon. It has been exactly a year since I laid down the first vocal track. Even now, watching and listening to it, I am really delighted with how it turned out. It is inherently beautiful and interesting.
And you received a tweet from the man himself, David Bowie. What did he say?
Well, I have been a musician my whole life. I have fronted bands since the early ’90s, in and around the Houston area. I’ve played countless pubs. I’ve sung solo in front of huge crowds. But there is something bizarre about having the music that I did recognised by someone who is in the upper echelons – the highest rarified atmosphere – of musical art, as David Bowie is. And not only that but to receive compliments from him! Ya know, he said it was the best cover of the song he’s ever heard. For me, it’s really just heartwarmingly delightful that he liked it.
The Beatles’ ‘Across the Universe’ might have been another appropriate song to do?
I actually recorded that song with a choir at Christmas time! It’s a beautiful song. You know, I never intended to cover anything. I wrote an entire CD of original music with my brother and son and recorded it in space. I also recorded and wrote a song with Ed Robinson of Barenaked Ladies as part of a charity project in Canada and that was wonderful: we had 700,000 children sing that with me in orbit coast to coast. I just got lucky with how ‘Space Oddity’ turned out.
Up there in space, out of all the countries in the world, you took a particular interest in Ireland. Why?
It caught my eye because it’s sort of like the moon. Our solar system is full of moons: if you count the asteroid belt, there are countless rocks out there orbiting the Sun or orbiting other planets. The first beautiful one that you come to – that catches your eye in the foreground – is our moon. So, of course, you pay attention to it. When you are going around the world in a spaceship every 90 minutes, you spend a lot of time over water because the world is almost three quarters ocean – which makes landfall more significant. And because of the way the space station orbits – it sort of arcs across the north – landfall into Europe almost always starts with Ireland. So, it’s the first thing you see after you cross the Atlantic, several times everyday. Then when you look and it’s also inherently lovely because of the moderate climate.
Lovely because of the climate??? In what way?
It’s visibly green from space. Most of the world is not. In fact, most of the green places are covered in cloud perpetually – like the Amazon, because there are rain forests – whereas Ireland is green because of the gulf stream effect and the actual rain. That green shines all the way up to the space station – so that’s why it originally caught my eye. But I guess what caught my heart, then, was the reaction of the Irish people! To put up a picture of Ireland and then have this great swell of warm reaction – of people delighted that someone else could see them from that point of view – and then to share in the conversation... I began looking forward to when our orbit was going over Ireland, so I could continue to have that friendship blossom.
And you took lovely pictures of Dublin, which sparked massive interest... Luckily, there were days when it was perfectly clear over the entire island, so I got a great opportunity to take pictures of Ireland from tip to tip – to capture Ireland visually in a way that it had seldom been captured before.
You tweeted from space in the Irish language: were you aware of the significance of that?
I have always had an interest in Ireland. As a teen I decided to do the standard late adolescent North American thing – to go hitchhiking and take trains around Europe. At the time I didn’t get to Ireland: I landed in Prestwick, Scotland. I had very little money, maybe $6 a day to get by on. We went down, across to the continent, and all around Europe. But I never got to Ireland. For that last 40 years, I’ve been wanting to go see Ireland. For me, it was a part of the world that was unrequited.
You’ve seen it from space before.
Seeing it from space on three of the space flights – and especially the last one – piqued my interest. Then, of course, a lot of what I learned about human culture in my life has been through music. Because I played in bands, I have the type of mind that remembers lyrics. I know a thousand songs by heart. I played a lot of Canadian music, and a lot of it – especially the East Coast music – is based on Irish music. Even the lilt of the voices is very obviously derived from Irish roots. I played a lot of Irish music and the warmth of the place, its people, its history, its culture, was brought to life through music.
Is there something in common between Canada and Ireland?
There is a shared feeling. Canada is a very proud and individual nation, one which I absolutely love and feel lucky to have been born into. Canada is next to a slightly different and very powerful neighbour in the US – and there is that in Ireland as well, of course, with the UK. That sense of great national pride, next to a very powerful and well established neighbour, leads to a sort of a shared understanding between us. But I really enjoyed the reaction and the chance my wife, my daughter and I had when we were driving over the northern half of Ireland a couple of weeks ago – up to Inishowen, to the edge of Donegal and Derry. We drove up the wild Atlantic way in the late afternoon. Of course the winter sun sits close to the horizon for so long, the spray was pounding into the rock. It would break your heart, the natural beauty of it. The spray was getting up and colouring and softening the natural sunlight. The whole place glowed. It was a dreamlike thing – a place that I had thought about, taken pictures of from above. And all the people I met were so true to that perception.
You played hurling here.
(Laughs) I played – but not very well. Hurling is a great game to watch. My daughter was in Trinity when I came to visit for the first time, and she took me to Croke Park to one of the national hurling matches. I had seen it already. I know it has an ancient history, and there is a resemblance to other sports, like hockey: the speed at which the ball goes around and the propensity to think in three dimensions and to pass. And, of course, I know all about lacrosse, which is a great Canadian tradition. What I really loved is how ingrained it is in Irish culture. Even if you know nothing about it, it’s a fine game to watch.
I believe you took part in an Irish music session in Donegal.
When I arrived at the hotel in Inishowen, there was a local band who play weekly: they were in the lobby when we got there and I just couldn’t resist. I sat down and played a bunch of jigs and reels and songs. And then a couple of nights later, we had a special designated music night in pubs right the way up on the other edge, north of Inishowen. They had some really good local talent. I have seen a lot of pubs around North America, Scotland, England. To be able to play that pub on that night, to local people who are there for the right reasons, was really memorable. Music is different than any language: it’s subconscious. It’s intrinsic to humanity somehow.
When you finally returned to Earth, in what ways had you changed?
There’s the straight physiological effect which is pretty brutal: it’s like recovering from an illness or something. There is an arduous period of physical readjustment to get your body back to normal. There is also a period needed for psychological
re-adaptation. Even though you are incredibly busy as an astronaut on the space station – it’s unlimited work, it’s relentless and it’s seven days a week – there is also a serenity and a peacefulness to it. You are with a small group of people in a very distant place, with a view out the window which is unimaginably beautiful and compelling. So to come back to the regular, disorganised tumults and random noise of the heavily populated earth... well, it takes time to get used to.
But is there a philosophical change with that?
Maybe it gave me a more global view: a more pervasive sense of comfortable familiarity with the world. Hardly anybody now feels like ‘them’ or ‘the enemy’ or ‘the other guy’ to me. My sense of ‘us and them’ has almost completely just become a sense of ‘us’. You start to develop a sense of a ‘commonality’ regarding our shared existence. I think that is fundamentally derived from going around the world 2,500 times and seeing it directly from above.
That sounds like an ‘imagine there’s no countries’ kind of vibe?
Exactly. I think a lot of musicians have tried to say that – whether it’s Lennon saying that there’s no countries in ‘Imagine’ or McCartney saying everybody feels insecure. Both of those are just reminders of the fundamental shared nature of our existence. We’re all trying to find a little grace, laughter, some meaning in life – and then, maybe, a better life for our children. That’s common to all of us.
Are you religious?
Not particularly, no. People in the States have all different religions. In the astronaut corps there are individuals of many different religions. I have great respect for those who find strength in personal belief. You have to, I think, possess, a set of personal beliefs that give you confidence and strength to deal with the realities of life. I think we do ourselves damage by becoming so wrapped up in our own particular understanding that we become critical of other’s understanding of the world. So I try and be the other way – to be confident on my own, to have strength on my own. But also to be as open as possible as to how everyone else solves those problems in life. I try not to speak too strongly about my own beliefs because so people may feel that if you don’t believe the same thing that they believe then one of you is wrong. And I disagree with that. I think it’s okay to solve the same problem in different ways.
So is there life out there in space?
It’s really hard to look at the world – no matter how cut and dried or black and white science is, no matter how dogmatic you are – and think that it’s random. It’s so exquisitely rare and beautiful. I certainly haven’t got the answer to it. But it is thought provoking. I was talking with [celebrity physicist] Brian Cox, doing the math of our most recent discoveries of the number of planets around other stars that we can directly and indirectly see. The number is staggering. Within our own little galaxy, there are 20 billion Earth-like planets. Twenty billion! And there are billions of galaxies! So the way I think is: it is inevitable that there is life in other places and perhaps unending life. There may even be life on Mars, which will answer the question for us. I doubt that there are extra-terrestrial species with green skin outside the earth taking sneaky snapshots, just hovering and leaving, never actually making contact. None of that makes any sense to me. I also think that we’re not alone. We’re just starting to become selfaware enough, educated enough, to get a basic understanding of it.
You made all sorts of educational YouTube videos about space. We found out tears don’t fall, how astronauts sleep, and so on. What else did you learn from being up there?
I mentioned that Paul McCartney once said that ‘sometimes I feel insecure’. That was a really nice thing to hear from Paul McCartney. It’s something you learn from being in space – about the commonality of the human experience. You’re not the only one who puts on their trousers one leg at a time! Well, actually, that’s not true in space – you can put your trousers on two legs at a time. You float right into them! But it’s something I took to heart.
U2 recently won a Golden Globe for ‘Ordinary Love’. Bono described it as a song about the dysfunctional love story between Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie – dysfunctional due to his imprisonment and forced isolation from his then wife. An astronaut experiences something similar, spending a long time away from their family, training and in space. How did you deal with isolation?
Isolation is almost always psychological: there are a lot of couples that live together in the same house who are pretty isolated. And there are couples who spend a lot of time apart and don’t feel isolated from each other – so a lot of it is just about your relationship or your treatment of each other. By no means did my wife and I get it perfect, but part of it comes from a fundamental agreement of what the two of you are trying to be together. Where are you headed? What are your overall goals? My wife is a great believer in plans and options and looking forward. You know: ‘I don’t know if you want to make it two horses in a harness together or two people who are in harmony with each other but how are the two of us working together towards what we had agreed to as a shared common goal?’ And I think if you can get to that type of fundamental agreement on where the two of you are headed, that really eases up a lot of the feelings of isolation or separation or being at cross-purposes. It also allows the two of you to pursue your own individual interests, recogonising that you’re both working towards a common goal.
Which is what?
My wife has had a couple big careers in her life and in one of them she worked as a professional chef for a couple of years. If someone said ‘what do you do?’, I would never introduce myself as ‘the chef’s husband’. Similarly, there is no way my wife would introduce herself with ‘I’m an astronaut’s wife’. Someone might figure out who she was – but it’s not how she views herself. She might say we are a chef and an astronaut, working towards the common goal of things we want to achieve: joy and laughter and comfort and success; a good set of opportunities for our children; and an old age that we can both count on and enjoy.
Is there not more to it than that?
We have to give each other the freedom to pursue other things. If you don’t, you’re actually doing your relationship harm because the other person is going to, subconsciously at least, blame their lack of opportunity on the relationship and on the other person. I tell myself I know what I’m doing. Of course I don’t – and I get it wrong. I have at times had to apologise to my wife for getting all wrapped up in my own particular world. We’ve been together 38 years and have the ability to criticise and counsel each other, in the process of supporting and loving each other. That has worked pretty well. Even though we were physically separated for years, we never really felt mentally or emotionally separated.
Is there a glamorous side to being an astronaut? Is it a bit rock and roll, with women throwing themselves at you?
(Laughs) Glamour is at best transient. And anybody who throws themselves at you is probably to be avoided, because you’re going to be thrown off too. If you’re just working hard at your job, trying to do it right, trying to make it as worthwhile as possible and other people decide, ‘Hey that’s a cool thing and I’m going to celebrate that’, then of course, that’s lovely. With the most recent space mission, we’re at the level where people treat us as celebrities. It’s fun. I didn’t set out to be a celebrity or to be a ‘rock star’ by any other means’ – what I set out to do was to work hard. Hopefully people will recognise that. I can continue to focus on that part of my life. I get emails back and forth from famous people – it’s a little bit surreal at times, the things that happen but...
Apart from David Bowie, did other high profile figures get in contact while you were in space?
I got a contact from the Queen of England, congratulating me on what we were doing up there. I don’t normally get a lot of notes from a monarch (laughs). That was pretty incredible. Also, there’s an American broadcaster, Brian Williams, who’s quite well-known and respected. He’s thoughtful and methodical and accurate and has a really good perspective on things. He took it upon himself while I was in orbit, to do a whole soliloquy ‘editorial’ on what I was doing. There’s all sorts of examples like that. I have to keep reminding myself: ‘stay true to the things that are actually important to you and keep working to the things you believe in’.
Will you be coming back to Ireland?
Of course. With my daughter over there, we will be back for annual visits. She’s finishing up her doctorate, so there will be the various events that go along with completing a PhD. And we need to come out of Dublin and go south! The last time we came out of Dublin and went north. There is a whole lot of Ireland to discover, lots we want to look at. We have some promotional videos to come out with Tourism Ireland, shot on our last visit. It will be a chronicle of what we did. I really want to have a better look at the rest of Ireland. We’ll be back for sure.
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