20 April 2015

International Day of Human Space Flight 2015: My Stroll with Commander Chris Hadfield

The General Assembly, in its resolution A/RES/65/271 of 7 April 2011, declared 12 April as the International Day of Human Space Flight “to celebrate each year at the international level the beginning of the space era for mankind, reaffirming the important contribution of space science and technology in achieving sustainable development goals and increasing the well-being of States and peoples, as well as ensuring the realization of their aspiration to maintain outer space for peaceful purposes.”

12 April 1961 was the date of the first human space flight, carried out by Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet citizen. This historic event opened the way for space exploration for the benefit of all humanity.

The General Assembly expressed its deep conviction of the common interest of mankind in promoting and expanding the exploration and use of outer space, as the province of all mankind, for peaceful purposes and in continuing efforts to extend to all States the benefits derived there from. [1]

Chris Hadfield is a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. An engineer and former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, Hadfield has commanded the International Space Station, and is famous for using social media to share his outer-space experiences with people on Earth.

Chris and I discussed Space exploration; his last expedition aboard the International Space Station; Yuri Gagarin’s feat 54 years later; and much more. Chris also shares some inspiration from his two New York Times Bestselling books. Here’s my stroll with Chris.

Ebenezar: Hello Commander Chris, it’s a pleasure having you on the Stroll, sir

Chris: Hello, great to talk to you, Ebenezar.

Ebenezar: How has retirement being for you and what have you been up to lately?

Chris: Retirement isn’t any different from the rest of life or the next thing that you’re doing. I think this is the fifth time that I have retired. I’m doing a lot of different things now; I teach at University; I’m on the Space Advisory Board for Canada; I connect with hundreds of students via Skype every week, and I give a lot of talks.

I’m also recording a new album, made up of music that I recorded on the Space station.

Ebenezar: Wow, Nice!

Chris: Yes. The release of both my books have kept me busy as well. Both books have been New York Times Best Sellers, and the first book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is in 20 languages already, so there’s lots of things going on. It’s not really retirement; it’s just a change in phase.

Ebenezar: Do you miss being in Space?

Chris: Not really, no. I try not to spend any time missing anything. I just don’t think that’s productive. I’m really proud of the work that I helped do in space, and I worked really hard at it for a lot of my life. I also think it helped turn me into the person I am right now, but I don’t sit around missing it.

Ebenezar: Okay, that’s nice. April 12th is International Day of Human Space Flight, and recently we’ve seen attempts by certain people—most recently Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic—to design commercial spacecraft which provide flights for space tourists. What’s your take on this development? Do you think it’s possible to fly regular people to space?

Chris: When you say regular people, you mean unqualified. Can you fly people in space that are just tourists or passengers? Just like we do when you ride a bus; you don’t have to know how the bus works to sit in the back of the bus, or if you ride on an airliner all you have to do is be able to pay for your ticket.

Eventually, just like bus and air travel, space travel will be the same. But right now we haven’t invented the buses or the airplanes that make space travel be that way, and we’re working on it.

I think the answer is yes, and it takes people like Richard Branson to try this path and to invent the space ships. I think it’s a natural progression; the same way air travel used to be very dangerous and expensive, but now it’s quite commonplace; eventually space travel will be the same.

The International Space Station (2008)

Ebenezar: That’s cool. The United Nations also hopes on a day like this, the world and UN member states will see more reasons to collaborate and forge sustainable development. Do you think Space exploration can foster more collaboration between nations around the world?

Chris: Yes, I do. I was in the military, in the Royal Canadian Air force for 25 years, and I helped defend Canada against Soviet bombers. I intercepted Soviet bombers in Canadian airspace. But with building the Russian Space Station and the International Space Station, since then I’ve been part of a big cooperative effort to explore Space. I also think the combined enemy of complexity and cost with Space flight seems to be unifying, and so I think it’s great.

Just look at what is happening here, Ebenezar: you’re in Nigeria and I’m in Canada, and we’re talking about exploring the rest of the Universe.

Ebenezar: Yes, cool right?

Chris: Right. And that happens because both of us are interested and inspired by Space exploration. Russia and 15 countries, including the United States, are cooperating on the International Space Station. Some things rise above politics and territory, and exploring the Universe is one of those. It’s not perfect, but I think it has a terrific history and a lot of potential, and I think the Space Station is an excellent example of that.

Ebenezar: I've been wondering, what exactly happens at the International Space Station?

Chris: A million things happen there. Fundamentally it’s an enormous laboratory with 150 to 200 experiments running, in a huge lab that’s like no other in existence. It’s a lab without gravity – one that is in the vacuum of Space, and above the atmosphere.

So you can see the universe, you can see the Earth, and you can conduct experiments in weightlessness. It’s a huge orbiting research vessel. It’s also a place where we’re testing new spaceships, and how to build new materials and equipment in order to go beyond Earth’s orbit.

(Chris doing a spacewalk)

Ebenezar: Wow! Really incredible stuff happens there…

Chris: Yes, so it’s an amazing human venture, and it’s a very busy laboratory with 6 human beings who are up there from all around the world that are keeping the Space station healthy and running all year round.

Ebenezar: Really interesting. So, growing up, what factors influenced your decision to become an astronaut?

Chris: I was originally inspired by science fiction – Star Trek and science fiction books, and by 2001 A Space Odyssey, the movie; but then I was more inspired by the early space explorers, Yuri Gagarin, whose anniversary was yesterday, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who walked on the Moon.

What influenced me the most was the combination of fantasy and science fiction, and the reality of actual spaceflight. That’s why I decided to turn myself into an astronaut.

Ebenezar: You earlier mentioned Yuri Gagarin, 12th April 1961 is the day he carried out the first human space flight. That historic event opened the way for space exploration for the benefit of all humanity. About 54 years after, what possibilities are there for deeper Space Exploration?

Chris: We have already left the solar system; our Voyager satellite is beyond the effects of the Sun, so we’ve gone a long way in just 54 years—since Sputnik. And we’ve sent our probes all across the solar system. We have probes on other planets, and the Moon.

We also have made the transition from just sending out probes to now living permanently off the planet, and that’s a big transition. I believe we’ll continue expanding in space just like we’ve expanded on the surface of the world — only limited by technology and imagination.

Ebenezar: Talking about technology, what’s your take on the space robot Curiosity?

Chris: I think all of the robots on Mars are really interesting; Opportunity, Spirit, Pathfinder, Phoenix, and Curiosity, and the ones that are orbiting Mars. We’ve learnt more about Mars in the last 10 years than we knew in the whole of human history. I think that it’s a tremendous early probe.

Ebenezar: So how far do you think we are, from getting on Mars?

Chris: Well, we are already on Mars. We already have many probes on Mars, and satellites orbiting Mars, and the distance to Mars doesn’t change. Eventually, we would have invented enough things to safely send people to Mars, but we’re nowhere around there yet.

Chris: However, it’s just a matter of how quickly we can invent things. I mean, the iPhone didn’t exist 5 years ago, and the internet didn't exist 25 years ago, so the pace of invention is fast. I don’t know when, but yes, eventually, we’ll go from the Space Station to the Moon and eventually to Mars, but there’s no big hurry or rush. It’ll just be limited by how quickly we can invent things.

Ebenezar: You were very active on social media during your last expedition at the International Space Station; it seems the internet up there is really good?

Chris: The Internet on the Space Station is really bad.

Ebenezar: Oh really?? (Hahah)

Chris: Yes, it’s really slow, and it works only a few times every day. Once in a while the internet is okay, but it’s quite primitive.

But we do have digital transmission; where we can send files back and forth. Thus I could make a video on the Space Station and then send all the videos overnight to the ground through a data link. That way, the material has reached the ground by morning.

Ebenezar: What lessons did you learn, or what discoveries did you make from taking pictures, and viewing the Earth from up there?

Chris: I wrote two books about just that, Ebenezar, the first one is called “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”; which explains the lessons that I learned up in Space that are useful here on Earth. The second book is called “You are Here; Around the World in 92 Minutes”, and includes the best one hundred and fifty photographs I took of the world.

The Nile, draining out into the Mediterranean. The bright lights of Cairo announce the opening of the north-flowing river's delta, with Jerusalem's answering high beams to the northeast. This 4,258 mile braid of human life, first navigated end-to-end in 2004, is visible in a single glance from space (Chris Hadfield)
Chris: What have I learned? It’s like asking what have you learned on Earth? It’s kind of a big question. Imagine you’re asked, what have you learned in 22 years, Ebenezar? Where do you even start?

Perhaps the thing that I learnt that is most important is that there’s a difference between danger and fear.

Ebenezar: Okay?

Chris: And often we let fear tell what to do in our lives, when in fact, the danger is completely different from fear. It’s how we decide to do things in our lives. What we challenge ourselves to do or what you allow fear to keep you from doing.

I think the limit of what you can accomplish in life is how you personally train yourself to deal with things that make you afraid.

From the photographic book, the most important thing I learned is that life is actually the same everywhere on earth, and the pattern is repeated everywhere. We’re all in this together, we all breathe out of the same bubble of air—all of us.

You know, sometimes we forget that. We think that our particular part of the world, whether it’s Toronto, New York, Port Harcourt - we think that’s the most important place on Earth or the problems that you’re facing here or there, you think that’s the normal, but in truth the patterns are repeated worldwide. We need to find a way to recognize a true perspective of ourselves, and you really gain that perspective by going around the world every 92 minutes.

Ebenezar: Really nice. You also earlier talked about Music, and your cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity went super viral on the internet; whenever I watch that video, I’m just thinking, how were you able to play guitar chords in zero gravity? That’s really difficult right?

Chris: It is difficult! I don’t know if you play the guitar or not, Ebenezar, but everything feels different. What I tell people to do is, try lying down on your back and play a guitar. Or, try standing on your head…

Chris doing his cover of David Bowie's Space Oditty in Space

Ebenezar: (Hahah) That should be really difficult

Chris: Stand on your head, and play the guitar. That’s sort of what it’s like because, the guitar doesn’t stay in the right place, and your arms don’t feel right as they aren’t pulled down by gravity. So you can do it, but you have to sort of relearn how.

Ebenezar: Nice, so what’s the music album you’re recording about?

Chris: I wrote and recorded the whole album when I was on the International Space Station. I think we’ll make an announcement in the next day or two. It’s songs that I wrote; one with my son, Evan, and a few with my brother, Dave, and I wrote several songs on my own.

I recorded them using an iPad and Garage Band up on the space station, and right now we’re in the studio adding all the instrumentals and whatnot to make them more full-sounding. We haven’t decided what the album will be called yet, but it’s the very first music work that was done outside Earth…

Ebenezar: Awesome, I’m personally looking forward to that one. On a final note, you’re very famous, Commander Chris, and youths all around the world look up to you for inspiration. What values have helped in making you the global success you are today?

Chris: I think it is - curiosity. You should always be curious about the world around you. And not just curious, but you should strive to understand how the world works. Strive to answer your curiosity, always.

Whether you know it or not, the small decisions that you make on a daily basis are the ones that actually turn yourself into who you’re going to be. It’s not the big fancy decisions; it’s actually the little ones. What books do you read? What food do you eat? What do you learn? How much do you sleep? That’s actually what turns you into who you want to be.

Recognize that you make these decisions every day. Recognize that you’re a product of your own decisions, so decide wisely. The last thing, and maybe the most important, is to give yourself time to decide what you really dream of doing; and sometimes it’s really hard to decide. So what I tell people is, when you go into a book store or a library, what part of the store or library do you always go to? What part of it actually fundamentally interests you? Because, that is like an indication to you of what you’re interested in.

Chris: Then, when you identify the things you’re really interested in, say to yourself, “Well, that’s who I am.” If you’re interested in medicine and you want to be a heart surgeon or you’re interested in politics and you want to be United Nations Secretary General, or you’re interested in mountain climbing and you want to climb every peak of the world, it doesn’t matter.

Give yourself that self-admitted dream, and then start changing yourself; making the small decisions that move your life in that direction. Tonight, do something to move in that direction. Start turning yourself into what you dream of. It’s amazing when you give yourself a long term dream, and then on a regular basis you train yourself and give yourself all those skills; it’s amazing where life can lead.
I grew up in a country that had no astronaut programme…

Ebenezar: Oh my…

Chris: Yeah, and it seemed impossible to become who I am today, but things change with time and all I kept doing was getting myself ready and seizing every opportunity, and now I’ve flown in space 3 times and commanded the world’s spaceship. That is for me the set of values that have been most important.

Ebenezar: Wow, I’m so inspired and fired up right now. Thank you so much for your time, sir. It was an honour having you on the Stroll.

Chris: It’s been delightful to talk with you also, Ebenezar; all the best.

Food for the Soul: "I often think of the heavens your hands have made, and of the moon and stars you put in place. Then I ask, why do you care about us humans? why are you concerned for us weaklings?" (Psalm 8:3-4, CEV)

(Images Credit: NASA, CSA, Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press, the Atlantic, Chris Hadfield, Ctv)

1- International Day of Human Space Flight, United Nations, http://www.un.org/en/events/humanspaceflightday/

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