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Interview with Astronaut Chris Hadfield: 'I'm a Front Man'

The commander talks with SKYE about life as the world's first rock-star astronaut
Related: Chris Hadfield, Space

Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013
This image provided by NASA shows astronaut Chris Hadfield recording the first music video from space Sunday May 12, 2013. The song was his cover version of David Bowie's Space Oddity. Hadfield and astronaut Thomas Marshburn are scheduled to return to earth Monday May 13, 2013. (AP Photo/NASA, Chris Hadfield)
Astronaut Chris Hadfield records the first music video from space - David Bowie's "Space Oddity" - aboard the International Space Station on Sunday, May 12, 2013. (AP Photo/NASA, Chris Hadfield)​

Before he arrived at the International Space Station in December of 2012, Chris Hadfield had already enjoyed a storied astronaut career. He'd been up in a space shuttle twice, performed a space walk and spent time aboard the Russian space station Mir and the ISS. But it was during his five months aboard the space station earlier this year that he became an Internet sensation. Hadfield sent back wildly popular YouTube videos. He posted captivating photos to Twitter, some accompanied by poetic observations. And he recorded a music video - a haunting cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" - that instantly went viral. In May, Hadfield plunged back to Earth in the Soyuz capsule, and soon after, announced his retirement from the Canadian Space Agency and set to work on a book. "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" hit bookstores Oct. 29 and rocketed the astronaut onto bestseller lists.

SKYE caught up with him this week in Los Angeles, hours after he taped an interview with Conan O'Brien and moments before a bookstore appearance in front of hundreds of starstruck fans.

SKYE: The world had never seen anything quite like your zero-gravity cover of "Space Oddity." You mention in the book that your son, Evan, suggested it. Where'd the idea come from?

The whole world sort of had the idea for "Space Oddity." They were sending notes to Evan. He was managing the social media on the ground. I tweeted, but I was busy and didn't have time for everything. He was really keeping his finger on the pulse and right away, back in December, he said,"Dad, you have to record 'Space Oddity.'" I was like, "Why would I do that - a druggie tune where the astronaut dies?" But he was insistent. He said, "It's not for you, but for everyone else." He rewrote the words for me so that the astronaut didn't die and I actually updated the words and made it more topical. Then I did the audio and got some friends to add music underneath. They did a great job. Then Evan said, "You're in space, it's got to be a video." So I made the video. Then Evan and his editor, in about a week, put the whole thing together - two kids in their 20s. And it just came out great.

It's amazing. Have you spoken to David Bowie since you got back?

I've emailed with him. Recently, I heard he said it's the best the song's ever been done, which is crazy high praise for me for one weekend doing a project on the space station.

I have to imagine, when Bowie wrote the song, that he never dreamed an astronaut would one day perform it in space.

Yeah, it's pretty amazing. And the reason for the reaction is, too: the crossover between art and kind of the ethereal nature to space flight, and then the reality of it. That's the key thing. This was art and reality, and somehow it made it more interesting, to see them go together.

It was mind-blowing. Are you the first astronaut to understand that?

Apparently, I guess. I mean, we've had musicians up there before, but I'm a front man. Whenever I get in a band - I've organized bands - when we're up [on stage] and it's time to talk before the next song, I always look around at the band and nobody's talking. So I talk to the crowd. Someone's got to do that, and I'm more by nature a front man, and it was a front man thing to do, I guess.

Are most astronauts, by nature, front man types?

Astronaut's Guide to Life on EarthSome are, but we're actually a pretty reserved group, because you don't want some big, boisterous personality up there. You don't want some loudmouth. You want people with a bit of reserve, with a good sense of humor and a real urge to help everybody else and put someone else's needs ahead of their own. But you also have to be the spokesman, and you are, whether you want to be or not. You are the face of NASA, you're the voice of NASA, and you can just keep it low-key or raise it to whatever level that you're comfortable with. I tried, on all three of my spaceflights, to make it as accessible and interesting to people as I could, and this last one just went really well.

The United States has been at the forefront of space exploration for so long. It's amazing to me that, despite that, a Canadian came along and seized the spotlight and captured everyone's imagination. (Hadfield laughs.) Obviously you had a lot to say and a way of saying it that really connected with people. I talked to one astronaut who also wondered if the fact that you were working for the much smaller Canadian Space Agency helped make that possible.

It gave me more latitude. Absolutely.

Yeah, because NASA is such a big organization and there's has to be so much bureaucracy to contend with, in terms of getting videos approved and other projects.

Well, Twitter provides this weird end run, because I could tweet directly from space. None of the big organizations know what to do with Twitter. Do they let their employees tweet, or encourage them to tweet about business? But then when people tweet about non-business, where is the line? Nobody's got it quite sorted out yet, but NASA encouraged us to tweet and at first they wanted to make sure it didn't get out of control. I remember back on my first space flight, they didn't want us to be able to email back and forth to the ground. They wanted Mission Control to control communication with us. They didn't want us finding out procedures or ideas or whatever from alternate sources. I can understand that. We don't own the space station. But over time, they've seen that it's OK, that we're not going to start running a procedure just because someone emailed it to us.

We're sort of in that phase with social media now. I just saw it as a great tool. The Canadian Space Agency was really forthright with it and brave and tried to push it to the limit and make the most of it, and then I even pushed them to their limit, because they have to answer to the Canadian government lawyers, also. Doing "Space Oddity," we got legal permission from Bowie, and we put the Canadian Space Agency watermark on the video, so it doesn't belong to me. I don't earn a cent from it. It's all legal. But it took a bunch of work, and the CSA was willing to shoulder that work. But the net result was a real positive and a real eye-opening awareness of what the space station is doing.

For me, your tweets and YouTube videos made the abstract, almost theoretical quality of space and life on the space station more real. They made it all more human.

My point has been for a long time, if people don't know the space station exists, then they can't support it or not support it. First, they have to know it exists. Then, they have to know what it's doing, what it's for. Then, maybe they can make a value judgment about it. But at least give people a look on board so they can see that we are working hard for the money, and we're running 200 experiments, and we're trying to figure out what the universe is made of, and we're looking at pollution around the world, and we're doing groundbreaking experiments onboard. Let people see all that, but also let them see that this is a new place for people. This is a perspective on the world, and this is a cultural place. We've been there for the last 13 years. We've left Earth. This is an important thing we're doing. I really worked hard to have people see it as clearly as I could make it, while still always putting work first. We set records for the amount of science done. We set records for the amount of operations done.

Some former commanders have said, "We could maintain that pace for a while but we could never have responded to a surge, if there'd been some big demand, we never could have done it." Four days before we came home, the station began leaking ammonia and we had to do an emergency spacewalk on one day's notice on the weekend. And we were perfectly positioned to do it. In fact, it just went great because of how we'd set things up.

You recorded at least a couple of songs in space. What are your top five space songs?

[Laughs.] Gosh, I'd have to think about it. Well "Oddity" is great. You know, the iconic space song "Rocket Man" isn't really a space song at all. "Rocket Man" is about being lonely and in the public eye, when in fact you feel very lonely and ostracized. I assume it was about Elton John's early homosexuality and being a public figure and just the torture of that - I think. People want me to play "Rocket Man," but "Rocket Man" has nothing to do with space flight. Do you know the theme to the Thunderbirds?

No.

That may be my favorite space song. It was a funny mannequin cartoon in the '60s and '70s.

Why that song?

It's just cool. It evokes imagery in my mind.

Do you know "Major Tom" by Pete Schilling?

[Shakes head.]

The chorus goes, "Earth below us, drifting, falling. Floating, weightless ..."

[Laughs.] No.

How about "Tranquility Base" by Eric Brace? NASA put out a video with it recently honoring Neil Armstrong. Beautiful song.

No, I don't know it. There's a song by Simple Plan called "Astronaut," but it's the same as "Rocket Man." It's a metaphor and not really about space. People think space flight is lonely, which is really puzzling to me. As I've said in the book, the loneliest people live in the middle of cities. Loneliness is a state of mind, not locational. Flying in space is not lonely at all. You see the whole world every 90 minutes. You see more people and more civilization and more stimulus than almost anyone in existence.

But you also see the blackness of space.

Yeah, but you see that from Earth, too. I've never once felt lonely up there, not on any one of my three flights. Plus, you're there with other people.

Speaking of seeing things, has being in space changed the way you see the night sky when you're back on Earth?

Definitely, when I see the space station go over. I like seeing the space station go over. It thrills me in many ways. I helped build it and I lived there. To see it go over, when I look at the night sky, I just love the beauty of it, and the inevitability of it, and the fact of it. But I have trouble connecting the reality of my two experiences, of standing on Earth and watching it go over, and of having been aboard it. It's hard to connect. I know I was onboard. But when I see the station go over, it's so surreal. I still haven't completely figured out what that means.

You see the night sky differently out on a spacewalk, because it's not above you, it's below you and around you. You're in the night sky. That's a whole different feeling. It's maybe the difference between sitting in your kitchen, looking out at the ocean, and floating out in the middle of the ocean.

I love the idea of the overview effect - the notion that looking back at Earth from space produces a cognitive shift in astronauts, that they come to see the world differently. What kind of an effect has looking back at Earth had on you?

It definitely had a bigger impact on me in my third flight than my first two because it was so much longer. You stole time on a [space] shuttle flight. You stole minutes. If you could steal two minutes to get to the window, you were doing great. On station [the International Space Station], if you didn't see it this month, you could see it next month. The phasing of light and dark and geography took like six or eight weeks to swap around, so if you didn't get a good picture of Paris in the daytime in January, you had to wait until March to do it again. But you had time to do that.

But a child of that experience also was the chance for the world to really have a cumulative effect on you. The world snuck up on me with its - I don't know if "oneness" is the right word - but how shared our experience is as people onboard this spaceship [Earth], and how thin this little slice of where we live is, between the cooled-off crust of the magma where we stand and the three-mile-thick tiny little layer of air where all of us live. We all live in that tiny little slice. And so our shared existence is so common.

If you look down at a town somewhere - I don't know, Phoenix - you see there's a downtown by the river, and then there's kind of the suburbs, and then you spread out and there are farmers and farmers' fields on the outskirts, and roads leading in and out. And then if you wait 25 minutes, you're over the top of Timbuktu, which has exactly the same pattern, and in another 25 minutes, you're over - I don't know, somewhere in Australia - and it's the same pattern. You see the same pattern repeated over and over, all over the world, and after a while, you realize, this is just us, this is how we live, this is where we are.

SEE on SKYE: 21 Awe-Inspiring Spacewalk Photos
I lost my sense of "us" and "them." The "them" kind of faded. And I'm not some sort of dewy-eyed schoolgirl about it. But it just perceptibly faded. There are bad people in the world, and there are aggressive, negative forces around, and there's a shortage of resources that we have to fight for, and there are historical enmities that we deal with. All that exists. But at the same time, the vast majority of people are subject to those things. They're not the cause of those things. And the vast majority of people are sharing the experience exactly the same as I am, and their hopes and dreams are the same, and what they want for their children is the same, and you can't avoid having that seep into you when you go around the world 2,500 times. I think that's maybe what the overview effect is all about: that shared sense of the existence that we all have, and hopefully that maybe, the next step is the citizenship and stewardship and responsibility that come from that. And the more people that get that, the better off we'll all be.

Do you ever worry about the future of space exploration, given the cost and economic pressures on governments?

There's this big negativity in the States right now. It's kind of funny. Everybody wants to be negative. They're poor students of history. They say, "Oh, in the old days things, we were so much better off." We were canceling the last Apollo missions before Apollo 11 even launched. We canceled two Apollo missions. We'd built the rockets already and we didn't launch them. And then after Apollo was over, we had this long hiatus and took forever to get to shuttle flying. The space station Skylab fell from the sky because we couldn't get the shuttle going. Nobody remembers that, right? And then after Challenger, and after Columbia, I thought we'd never fly again. Horrific things to have to get through and recover from. And space station came within a hair's breadth of being canceled right at its birth. And it's always been a budget fight, and it should be. It's been a tough economic time for the last three years, but what people forget is, we've been permanently living off the Earth since 2000. We have probes orbiting around Mercury. In the last three weeks, Curiosity discovered that in every cubic foot of dirt on Mars there's a liter of water. Mars has oceans of water and we just discovered that. We've got a probe going to Pluto. The space station is thriving. It's finished. Everyone's like, "Oh, we canceled the shuttle." Orion is set to do its first test flight next September. And Elon Musk and company are working hard to build manned vehicles to go in parallel with the Soyuz. And so there's all this populist negativity, but meanwhile, we've got a heck of a space program going on. I think what we're doing is amazing.

India just launched a probe to Mars. And the Chinese are going to the moon. We should cooperate with the Chinese. In 1989, if I'd said, we should cooperate with the Soviets, people would've looked at me just like they do if you say that we should cooperate with the Chinese. We need to commit to this internationally in order to let the projects ride out each country's economic and political cycles. That's the only way to make it happen. It's how the space station has survived. So I'm optimistic about the whole thing.

I know you've officially retired. Any chance you'll go into space again?

There's always a chance. I'm not going to fly with any nation's space program. I'm no longer an employee, and I had my share. I was so lucky to fly three different spaceships and go to two space stations and command a spaceship and be a Soyuz pilot. I was hugely lucky. But if [Richard] Branson and company come up with a really good version that drops the price by a whole bunch, we'll see. Or if Elon Musk gets an orbital version? Who knows? Or I may decide I want to go fly for Richard Branson and be one of his pilots. Probably not, but never say never. I mean, when I was 9, I decided to be an astronaut and it was impossible - and I flew three times. So never say never.

RELATED ON SKYE: Chris Hadfield's 30 Best Photos from Space

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