Star Man: Q&A with Astronaut Chris Hadfield

Astronaut Chris Hadfield was onboard the International Space Station in 2012 and 2013 as part of Expedition 34 and Expedition 35, and served as ISS commander during Expedition 35.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield was onboard the International Space Station in 2012 and 2013 as part of Expedition 34 and Expedition 35, and served as ISS commander during Expedition 35. (Image credit: Canadian Space Agency)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Of the 7.3 billion people on this planet, only a few ever get to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. But thanks to Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield, anyone can get a sense of what it's like to go to space.

Hadfield, who flew on two space shuttle missions and is a former commander of the International Space Station (ISS), made dozens of videos while on board the ISS in 2013. They offer a fascinating glimpse of the daily routines that astronauts perform while living in microgravity, from how they clean up spills to how they brush their teeth.

Hadfield also famously strummed and sang "Space Oddity" — the David Bowie song about an astronaut — while on the ISS. After Hadfield         recorded the song in space, his son Evan Hadfield edited a video of the performance that has gathered more than 36 million views on YouTube. The Bowie tune is one of 12 tracks on an album of songs that Chris Hadfield recorded on the ISS, titled "Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can."

Now retired as an astronaut, Hadfield has written several books about his experiences as a military pilot and a spaceflyer, and he continues to make music and perform science outreach and education. [Fun Times in Space: Astronaut Chris Hadfield's Wacky Photos]

On June 16, Hadfield appeared here at Future Con as co-host for a taping of an episode of the talk show "StarTalk Live!" alongside actor and writer Scott Adsit ("Big Hero 6," "Veep" and "30 Rock"). Before he hit the stage, Hadfield spoke with about the many ways he continues to share his spacefaring adventures with eager audiences on Earth.

(This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and content.) What brings you to Future Con?

Col. Chris Hadfield: I was invited to come to Future Con by the folks who put on "StarTalk" and "StarTalk Radio." I've been on that with [science communicator and astrophysicist] Neil [deGrasse] Tyson. And the whole idea of how you communicate — not just science and technology, but a lifetime of experience in those two things — is a big part of what I do right now. I speak all around the world. I teach at university. I write books about it. I have a YouTube series called "Rare Earth." I led an expedition to the Arctic about it, and I sing music about it. And to me, it's all part of the same theme. So, to be invited to come here and to talk about exploration and how we got to where we are and where we're going next — and to be on stage with other experts — to me it's just a treat. What role do events like Future Con play in connecting people with science?

Hadfield: The simple answer is it brings a lot of people to one place. If you're talking to one person, that's good, and the information that you pass on may be worthwhile, but it's just inefficient. To come to a place where there are thousands of people who are there because they have an interest in the ideas of science and exploration, and the fanciful as well as the practical — it's a good audience to speak with. And when you speak on something like "StarTalk," of course, it has life beyond the people in the room. It ends up being a podcast on its own, so other people can have access to the ideas.

I've had a bizarre life! I've gotten to do things that are extremely rare in the human experience and are sort of portal-opening activities, more so than most. And so, part of the question I ask myself is, 'What do you do with that experience?' Do you just become a hermit? Or do you try and share with other people what might be useful out of the experience? It helps guide all the choices that I make. So, the chance to come and be part of this is sort of a natural piece of all the other things that I do. You've had plenty of success using social media for science — it's great for quickly connecting to large numbers of people! But is it effective for stimulating long-term interest in science?

Hadfield: Improved communication is always used imperfectly when it first comes out. But in the long term, it contributes to the sharing of individual thought, and that's really important.

In 1435, if you had a new idea, it was really difficult to let anybody else know about it, especially if you weren't a person who was "supposed" to have a good idea — if you weren't part of the intelligentsia. But when Gutenberg made the printing press in 1440, by 1500 they had printed 2 million volumes. A lot of them were crap, of course, but a lot of them were brilliant, and that explosion of access to information was revolutionary, and that pace of communication has only accelerated.

And when the telephone was first invented, people didn't think they'd need it, and it wasn't used right — but now you don't even think about it, the telephone is just another way of talking to somebody. It's just ubiquitous and completely accepted.

Social media is just another form of communication. And the social side, I think, is the most important part. That any human being on Earth with an original idea now has a way to share it with any other human being on Earth, with no impediment. You don't have to be in the king's court for someone to hear what you have to say. You don't have to be a professor at Harvard. You can just be a person with an idea.

But our ability to procreate and to create problems isn't slowing down. We have a lot of problems to solve, and that takes technology. It takes invention. It takes people willing to address the issues. You have to understand the issues, share the problems, look at all the different solutions and then work on them together. And that takes communication in an unprecedented way.

Because the real measure of communication is changing behavior. If you haven't changed someone's behavior, you haven't really communicated with them. You were just talking to yourself. Let's talk about your "Space Oddity" video. You're a musician as well as an astronaut, so did you plan on performing this song in space as soon as you knew you'd be heading to the ISS?

Hadfield: Not at all — the exact opposite. I've been a musician since I was a kid, [but] I've only ever played one Bowie tune in my entire life, and I never played it before I was in orbit. I had no preconceived plan at all.

I've written lots of music and performed music my whole life. I fronted bands in Houston for 20 years. I flew in space three times. On my third flight, I knew there was a guitar up on the space station, so I just made sure I had enough strings and capos and picks up there, and I just played it every day.

My brother and I wrote a Christmas carol called "Jewel in the Night," and I got there [to the ISS] three days before Christmas, so I slapped the iPad up on the wall and did a one-take record with just an ambient mic of "Jewel in the Night." My son Evan released it through SoundCloud [an audio distribution platform], and the reaction sort of built from that, with people saying, "Hey, if you're gonna do that, you should do 'Oddity.'"

It just grew from that original idea. Emm Gryner and Joe Corcoran put all those instrumentals underneath my voice and guitar, and Bowie loved it — I've had a chance to play in New York with Bowie's band, and it just worked out really great. It was just a little tiny bit of what I did up there, but it had a big impact.

That crossover of fantasy and imagination and fiction is where you can allow yourself to imagine something that doesn't exist yet. That's where invention happens, and that's where the science moves in to make it happen. People who didn't even know there was a space station understand life on a spaceship better as a result of that song. And there was no big plan. I just shot that in a couple of hours one Saturday afternoon, just flipping around singing to myself.

My son's the one doing the "Rare Earth" YouTube series — it was his impetus. I never would have made the whole thing without him, so he's the one to thank. You're hosting "StarTalk Live!" here at Future Con. You've written books, given a TED talk, recorded a Bowie song in space — you've explored a variety of avenues for science communication and outreach. Is there one that you haven't tried yet but would like to?

Hadfield: I've just recently finished hosting a six-part series on BBC, and I'm in the process of hosting a 10-part series on National Geographic called "One Strange Rock," with Darren Aronofsky as the overall producer. But I'm always looking for different ways to communicate.

My first spaceflight, I had a ham radio and a film camera — it's really hard to share an experience on a ham radio and film camera. And social media allows an instantaneous sharing of a rare human experience, so I'm always on the lookout for better ways. I speak. I work with schools, and I teach at university — I'll probably teach more, and I'll see what comes along. I'm making it up as I go, just like everybody.

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Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.