November 11, 2013

Chris Hadfield

Cosmic wisdom for terrestrials
Interview by
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On July 20, 1969, 9-year-old Chris Hadfield decided that he wanted to be an astronaut. The difference between this Canadian boy with stars in his eyes and the millions of other kids who experienced the same revelation after watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon? Hadfield became one. From that day forward, he resolutely strove toward his goal, attending a military college, becoming a test pilot for the Canadian Forces, and eventually beating out more than 5,300 other applicants to become a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut in 1992.

Over the course of 20 years, Hadfield spent more than 4,000 hours in space, capping off his distinguished career with a five-month stint serving as the Commander of the International Space Station (ISS). You may recognize him from the video of his (David Bowie-blessed) rendition of “Space Oddity,” which racked up an out-of-this-world 10 million views in its first three days on YouTube and now—five months later—boasts nearly 19 million views.

In his best-selling An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield takes readers on a fascinating and exciting journey while offering insightful—if somewhat unconventional—wisdom applicable to everyday life here on Earth. Hadfield spoke with us about the book from Chicago, just one stop of many on his international book tour.

The thrillingly detailed description of your first Space Shuttle launch (aboard Atlantis in 1995) left me holding my breath, feeling as if I could at least somewhat imagine what it must have been like to experience. How much—if at all—did you struggle with writing this part?
Launch is an overwhelming physical experience. It’s immensely powerful and multisensory and hugely anticipated. I’ve thought about it, of course, a lot. It’s one of those things that you’ve trained for and thought about so long that during the event you’re hyperaware. I’ve had a chance to describe it many times, to students and organizations. The way I write is to kind of blurt it all out, and then I go back and selectively prune and edit and look and see which words I’ve repeated and things I could have been a little more expressive with. But as for the launch itself, I’ve thought about it and tried to describe it to the best of my ability, and writing about it was just a natural extension of that.

You’re afraid of heights? How does that jive with being an astronaut?
I think being afraid of heights is a good thing. There are some fears you ought to have. You should be afraid of zombies. You should be afraid of a Tyrannosaurus rex—anything that is a large and expected threat to yourself. For me, standing on the edge of a cliff with no way to stabilize myself—that’s fear-making. It’s one of the few things that give me a real irrational, physiological reaction, where my heart speeds up and I feel kind of a weird falling sensation in the pit of my stomach, and my legs don’t behave properly.

To me, though, that’s OK. It’s my body telling me: Don’t do this. But the real key is, what do you do about it? Do you let the fear keep you from trying things that might be inherently interesting to you? How do you come to terms with it so that you don’t end up denying yourself maybe some of the greatest pleasures of your life?

In the book, I talk about how irrational fears are mostly just limitations on opportunities in life, and if you can truly break down what it is about that fear and understand all of the key ways to avoid that fear of doing what it is that scares you, then you can manage [the fear], and then do some things that you wouldn’t do otherwise—like do a space walk or live onboard a space ship.

You point out that most astronauts are not daredevils, which may surprise a few folks. Can you elaborate?
Thrill seeking and being a daredevil would kill you if you were an astronaut. The way it’s portrayed in a lot of movies as kind of this cowboy attitude of free-wheeling and taking great chances—you can’t be that way at all. For one, the consequences are very high. It’s not like you’re just in your own backyard trying out a diving board. This is extremely complicated equipment—someone else’s equipment—and you need to treat it with reverence and respect. But also, the risks are really high, and what motivates astronauts is not blindly taking risks and hoping that you survive, but instead very methodically understanding the risks and never taking one where you’re not convinced that you’re going to win.

When I was a test pilot, I did some things that might seem inherently crazy if you don’t consider the yearlong efforts in advance to understand them so that you knew, yes, there is still a risk there, but I have done my work up front and in such detail and with such attention to sweating all of the small parts of it that I’m confident that I will prevail, and to this point in my life, I’ve been right. I’ve done these things that have an inherently high risk, but I’ve done them because I thought the results were worthwhile. And I’ve managed the risk to the point that I haven’t had to deal with unintended consequences. That’s the real beauty of it all. It’s the adrenaline rush with the ability to manage the risk so that you can become successful. That’s the real thrill and the pleasure of it for me, and I think that’s true for all astronauts.


Hadfield channeling David Bowie onboard the International Space Station (photo: NASA)

It’s unusual for someone to be promoting “the power of negative thinking.” What exactly do you mean by it?
Well, a lot of people say: Visualize success. And I’ve never understood that. Visualizing success to me is like visualizing [pause] ice cream. It’s nice, but it doesn’t get the ice cream made. It doesn’t keep the ice cream cold. If you really want to be successful, then you have to actually visualize the reality of it, and if you want to improve your odds of succeeding in something complicated, you’re much better served to visualize failure.

But don’t just visualize failure, of course, because then you just get depressed, thinking about failure all of the time. Visualize what it is you’re trying to do, and recognize that it’s probably not going to go that way, and then look at all of the ways that it could fail, and then have a plan of attack for when those things happen. The more you have visualized failure in advance and figured out how you’re going to react when this goes wrong, if that happens, then you can apply it to anything, to a family picnic or setting up a new business.

If you want to walk across Niagara Falls, set up your tightrope one inch above the ground and do it a thousand times, and drop your pole sometimes, during a big gust of wind sometimes and . . . with bees [laughs]—anything else you can think of that might go wrong—and then you have a much greater chance of success.

With this come an optimism and a confidence. You don’t live in fear of things that you haven’t gotten ready for. Instead, you live with a nice serenity as a result. It may seem kind of odd that by visualizing failure, you can achieve serenity and calm and optimism, but that’s how I feel about pretty much anything. And I apply it not just to riding rocket ships, but to how I approach everything in my life.

And would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist?
Oh, I’m an optimist. Absolutely. You can’t ride rocket ships for a living if you’re a pessimist. I’m very optimistic, but I’m a very carefully reasoned optimist. I’m not optimistic because I think that things are going to randomly turn out well. I’m optimistic because I’ve looked at things closely enough that I really understand the plusses and minuses and risks and benefits of all of the little variables that I think are going to affect my life. And then I’ve put myself in the position that—if you exclude acts of God and random things—I’m ready for. This gives you a comfort and an optimism that are reinforced all the time and become a way of life.

Your extensive worst-case-scenario training enabled you to keep calm during some seriously panic-worthy moments. Is there one that you look back upon and marvel at your ability to avoid panicking?
A big part of it is being able to ignore everything that you shouldn’t do, and part of that is repeating to yourself: What’s the next thing that’s going to kill me? That’s a really exaggerated way to put it, but in the cockpit of a rocket ship, it is the truth. You can’t be thinking about what’s going to happen three hours from now or about how things are going back home or any sort of distraction, because there are things happening in the next 10 seconds, 30 seconds, where if you don’t do your job right, it will kill you.

For example, coming into dock with the Russian space station Mir, we had complete disagreement between all of the sensors that were [guiding us], coupled with a tiny window of time that we had to do the docking. It was only the second time that it had ever happened in history, and a tiny little target and tremendous pressures, and yet even though it did not go as planned at all, I had to focus and say: OK, none of that other stuff matters. The fact that nothing’s going as planned matters. What matters right now is this is the information we have, and this is the objective we have to focus on. How can I use what I have in front of me to be successful?

I ended up just eyeballing it and saying: What’s the truth that I have? The lasers are letting me down. The main systems are letting me down. What I have is that I know this thing is 15 feet long, and I know that thing is three feet across, and I know where this camera is, and I hold up my thumb up here, and then I do the math with just my wristwatch and say to Ken Cameron, my commander, “Fire the thrusters right now because that’ll get us in the window to be able to dock at the right time.”

So, when I look back on it, it was a pretty stressful situation, but at the time, it was very much the product of all of the preparation and the realistic simulation and kind of a vindication of why we had spent so long getting ready for this thing. Nothing really went as planned, but everything was somewhere within the scope of what we were ready for. And that’s a wonderful way to go through life.

How exactly does one break into a space station with a Swiss Army Knife?
[Laughs] That was such a funny surprise for me. . . . We drove up and plugged the shuttle up to Mir, and I went down to the end to open the hatch, to have the big triumphal moment, the greeting of the crews and all the rest of it. I got to the hatch, and some overly assiduous and enthusiastic Russian technician had tied up that hatch and all of the mechanisms like, I mean it looked like the Mummy—yards and yards all over it.

I was looking at it, thinking I never saw this in training anywhere. The knots were pulled incredibly tight, so I thought, Well, gosh, I have my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket. So I just started digging into it and cutting strapping away. On the other side, Sergei Avdeyev and Yuri Gidzenko are kicking and pounding on the hatch, and I’m waving to them through the little window. Finally, I got all of the stuff cut out of the way and all of the tools freed up and could finally turn the hatch, equalize the pressure and open up the door.

Right at that moment, I turned around and smiled at the camera. Because my brother loves his Swiss Army Knife, it occurred to me that he would love this moment, so I turned around to the camera, holding my Swiss Army Knife, and I floated it at the camera and waved. If you go to the Victorinox Museum in Switzerland, they play that clip over and over.

That was the day I broke into Mir with a Swiss Army Knife.

What was the toughest part of your five-month stint on the International Space Station?
The toughest part was getting enough sleep. I would get up at 6:00, and then the prescribed activities would keep me busy from that moment until about 8:00 at night, broken down into five-minute increments—every single thing we’re supposed to do in five-minute increments, right up to 8:00 at night. So, there’s not much latitude to get ahead of schedule or do anything that isn’t what NASA needs you to do. So, the personal projects that I wanted to do—to really share the experience and get good photography of the world and to record music and stuff like that—I had to do in my personal time, starting at 8:00 or 9:00 at night, when you’ve been up since 6:00 in the morning. I would finally drift off to sleep at about 1:00 in the morning. And I’d do that seven days a week, for five months.

And so the hardest part, I think, was trying to really live the entire experience, to not miss it. It was hard, and I returned to Earth tired and worn out, but immensely satisfied with the work we’d done—we set records for the number of hours of science done, for operational use of the space station. We responded with just a few days left to do an emergency space walk to help save the health of the space station, and we had a huge social media outreach, including millions of people in what we were doing. The hard part was trying to squeeze all of that stuff in, but I returned to Earth very happy with the body of work that the crew and I had put together.

The best part?
The best part was sharing with the guys on board. There were moments of huge communal laughter, of celebrating birthdays, of holidays, of being in the cupola and seeing something magnificent on Earth and having someone else silently float by—just by happenstance—and join you at the window and the two of you seeing something nearly miraculous together and having a chance to point it out to someone else and go Look at that! That’s the best part, to have shared the experience with other people.

The breathtaking view from the cupola of the International Space Station (photo: NASA)

You may have retired from NASA/the CSA, but hopefully you don’t plan on retiring from YouTube anytime soon. What’s next for you?
[Laughs] I think I’ve counted it up, and I’ve retired five times so far in my life. Retirement, the word, has all sorts of false connotations to it. I have all sorts of plans. For now, of course, the book. We just found out that it’s going to be #17 on the New York Times bestseller list, which is hugely gratifying to us.

There’s all sorts of folks who are interested in having me come and talk about my experience, and so I’m doing that. We’re trying to help people—like I’ve been doing for 20 years as an astronaut—to show folks the opportunities that exist, to especially young people, to let them see the horizons, to not just go with their conclusions based on the home or the school or the town or wherever they’re growing up, but really see that there’s the opportunity to take advantage of some pretty incredible stuff that’s out there. That’s the import of why I go speak on the road and why we wrote the book.

Our son, Evan, who managed the majority of the social media during the flight, has been helping with that, and we recently made another YouTube video just sort of showing the whimsy and the fun of the book itself, and that’s gone viral as well, which is really fun to see.

A lot of people are asking me to join their efforts, whether it’s to help run a school or run a business or there are other causes that hopefully I can apply some of the notoriety and influence that I have now to help those causes flourish. We’re in transition right now, climbing down one particular ladder and ready to climb other ladders as time goes on. 

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