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Speaking about the astronaut Chris Hadﬁeld without mentioning also the engineer, the former ﬁghter pilot, the test pilot or the YouTube sensation behind that amazing zero gravity version of David Bowie’s “Space oddity” would be just a shame. Because he is all that and so much more. He was the ﬁrst Canadian astronaut to ever walk in space
and now, after retiring, he shares his experience writing, ﬁlming or just shining on Social Media with his mind-blowing sense of humor.
We were fortunate enough to speak to Chris about life on Earth and beyond, his view of the Universe and what it’s really like to be ﬂoating around weightless for months in a row.
Back in ’69, when you were a 9-year-old boy wanting to be an astronaut, Canada did not have a Space Program, there was no Canadian Space Agency. How difﬁcult was it to prepare for a career that was so uncommon?
I think it’s hard to prepare for anything when you are 9 years old, because you really don’t have a clear understanding how things works. Mostly, you are just guessing. Perhaps what made it seem possible was that spaceﬂight was still brand new and that summer the ﬁrst two people walked on the Moon. So, I think, the most important thing to learn when you are so young is that impossible things happen. And they happen as the result of an enormous amount of work and of someone who is willing to take a risk on behalf of something beyond themselves. That helped me choose all the little things that I was going to do next: learn to ﬂy, join the Air Cadets, go to University… it just gave a potential purpose to my life, never with any guarantee. But there is no guarantee when you are 9. The real important part is to be inspired to change who you are and try to turn yourself into something more.
November 12, 1995 – Atlantis. You were the mission specialist. Your ﬁrst ride to Space. What was going through your mind in that particular moment?
There is an enormous risk in launching a spaceship. The most complicated, the most demanding and the most dangerous 9 minutes of your life. And spaceships don’t ﬂy themselves. They take a huge amount of human readiness to react and to try and succeed. Or at least survive. So, it was the combination of the preparation of my entire life. Most of what was going through my mind was the level of responsibility. Another part of my brain was just hugely excited. The thrill of it and the opening of a door that had only been imaginary… I also had my family and my friends come down to Florida to watch. So I was aware of the personal signiﬁcance of it, recognizing just what a big day it was for them and their helplessness in watching me face this risk. And even maybe more improbably I was a Canadian on board an American spaceship going to build a Russian space station. A pretty historic thing to be doing, especially for someone who has been a ﬁghter pilot intercepting soviet bombers just a few years prior, that were practicing attack on North America. So, for me, docking with MIR, building and leaving it in a better state than we found was a worthwhile adventure.
And then, you became the ﬁrst Canadian to ever walk in space. How does it feel to do that?
Walking in space is a magniﬁcent human experience. You are outside working hard, building and following a very tight timeline in a very unusual environment But the raw beauty of the Universe around you, the newness of it, the perspective that you have of the world…In the 50 hours that I was outside on my two spacewalks I went around the world 10 times. That was staggering to be able to see. It just makes you wonder how it will be like when we will be able to leave permanently in upcoming missions.
How does the body adapt to this no-gravity environment? Does it change?
Of course, when you remove gravity things change. Just as if you spent the next month running 10 kilometers every day. After a month your body would have changed. Your blood system, your lungs, your muscles, your bones, they would all try and respond to the demands you bring on them. When you go into a weightless environment your body begins to change itself in sort of a plastic manner. And the most measurable change is our loss of bone. Because you don’t need a heavy skeleton if you are not ﬁghting gravity, so you start to get osteoporosis. If you don’t exercise you will lose muscles as well and your balance system changes dramatically because there is nothing to tell you which way is up. You become totally reliant on your vision. Your blood pressure regulation changes because it doesn’t need to lift the blood to the top of your head anymore, your heart shrinks because it doesn’t need to work so hard. You have more radiation and, when you close your eyes, if you wait a few minutes you are going to actually see the high energy particles going through your optic nerve. Your legs become thinner, you lose around 20% of the ﬂuid in your body…And that would all work great if you never left space again. But we have to do space walks which are extremely physical. And then we also want to come back to Earth at the end of the ﬂight. So we ﬁght it, we don’t just let our bodies adapt. We exercise two hours a day on three different pieces of exercising equipment: a bicycle, a treadmill (with big bungee elastics to hold you down) and a resistance exercise machine. The fact is that a lot of the subtle changes are going to happen no matter what you do. And then you just have to readapt when you come home.
“There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” you say in a TEDTalk back in 2014. What is the worst thing you can remember happening in the Space Shuttle while you were there?
While you are operating the Space Shuttle, like with any other complicated machine, if you don’t know what you are doing and haven’t prepared properly or, if you just make a simple mistake, you can have catastrophic consequences. There are always failures and then it becomes even more important that we have spent the time in advance learning what we are supposed to do. I was lucky. On my two space shuttle ﬂights, the shuttles were both healthy. The worst we had was when we were coming into docking with MIR and both of our distance measuring equipment systems became unreliable, so we had to do our docking completely by hand and visually. But we planned for it, so we took over and just did it all by ﬁguring it out and using just the stopwatch on my wrist and my other experience in training. I trained for 21 years as an astronaut to be able to ﬂy in Space 3 times. Still, you have to remind yourself daily that there is a single Space Station for the entire planet, and each space shuttle is a national asset, an irreplaceable resource. Not only are you risking the life of the crew, but also the future of the entire Space Program. This is deﬁnitely something that you cannot take lightly.
Finally, is there anything you learn in space that training, simulation and all the other preparations could never have taught you?
We can train ourselves technically very well, so that we are ready for anything the systems could trow at us. But maybe what it doesn’t prepare you for is how unbelievably beautiful the world is. Ancient and strong and self-renewing. Since I was in space for half of a year I got to see the whole world go to one complete cycle where winter and summers swapped sides on the planet. Everytime you come around the world, every 92 minutes, it’s a new image. And yet you get to see that it’s not just Bucharest or Toronto( where I live ). The reality is that the whole world is one big place. I think the huge privilege of being in space allowed me to soak it in and to improve my perception of the world, turning me into the person that I am now.
This article was published in Be Blue Air Magazine, issue 39.