© 2022 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Chris Hadfield's Lessons from Life in Orbit


When you think about space, usually the big questions come to mind. Is there life on Mars? Did time and space exist before the Big Bang? How do our bodies react to long periods of time in zero gravity? What about some of the smaller questions?

CHRIS HADFIELD: I noticed recently that my fingernails are getting a little long, so it's time to cut your fingernails in Zero G. And now if I just cut my fingernails here, they're going to float everywhere. They'll get in your eyes, people will breathe them. Not good.

And now a little honey. Hey, I noticed something cool about the honey. Instead of the bubbles sitting at the top, because there's no gravity to make it float up, the bubble is floating in the middle.

So here's a common question. Can you cry in space? Do tears work? You can see it just forms a ball on my eye. Eyes will definitely cry in space, but the big difference is tears don't fall.

FLATOW: Sounds like a great title for a new tune that maybe Astronaut Chris Hadfield might want to cook up. That was Chris Hadfield exploring the personal side of space. He's flown on three different space flights, including a 144-day mission as the commander of the International Space Station. He's performed a space walk to install a giant arm outside of the station. He oversaw hundreds of scientific experiments in space.

And he might be the first space-based music producer. Last May he returned from the International Space Station to begin living on Earth full time. Chris Hadfield joins us now to talk about what life in zero gravity is all about. In his new book, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination and Being Prepared for Anything." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

HADFIELD: Ira, thanks very much. It's nice to be here and it's nice to be back on Earth.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, we've talked to astronauts very recently who got addicted to space. You don't sound like you're one of those.

HADFIELD: Addicted - it is really...

FLATOW: They said they missed...

HADFIELD: It's intoxicating.

FLATOW: They missed being there, yeah.

HADFIELD: Sure, it's intoxicating and addictive, absolutely. I was so lucky to fly three times over, you know, a little over two decades and a lot of different experiences, flying twice on the shuttle and going to two different space stations and being the left-seater, sort of like the pilot of the Soyuz, and then commanding a station.

I'd be crazy to say I didn't like it, but at the same time, I've had a wonderful experience at it, and a great richness of it. I'd like to go again if I could, but I'm really happy to be back also.

FLATOW: Are you retired or are you still an astronaut?

HADFIELD: I've retired. I worked for the government for 35 years and I retired in July. But it's a fine distinction. I still think of myself as an astronaut, but I'm not - someone who's traveled around the world at least once, but I'm no longer employed as - in fact I'm unemployed right now.

FLATOW: You're doing the book tour. Now, I noticed that you have a fear of heights. How does that not kick in when you're 220 miles up?

HADFIELD: Well Ira, don't you have a fear of heights?

FLATOW: Yes, I do. I actually can share that with you. I was taking private plane lessons. I was okay once I got above 1,000 feet, but below that I couldn't look out the window.

HADFIELD: I think you and I would agree that it's good to have a fear of heights. I mean, it's kind of crazy not to because if you just lean out a little bit and there's a gust of wind or somebody bumps you or something and you fall, you're splat. You kow, so yeah, when I stand on the edge of a cliff or right at the edge of a building or something, it's one of the few things that gives me kind of a deep, overwhelming, irrational fear where it affects my physiology, you know.

I can feel how my legs are stiffening up. It's just, you know, but I think it's healthy. I don't want to fall. The key is, of course, what do you do about it, and it sounds like you took flying lessons, so you've found a way to overcome it. And what do you do with the things that you're fearful of, whether it's heights or the unknown or what you're doing next, or whatever?

That's kind of the secret to it all; the key to life is what do you do with those fears and how do you live despite the more - or maybe even in parallel with them?

FLATOW: I never overcame that fear. I had to get through it.

HADFIELD: Yeah, it's maybe the same thing.

FLATOW: Yeah. When you went on your space walk, you got something in your eye and I'm guessing that it's not easy to get rid of that wearing a spacesuit. Tell us what happened there.

HADFIELD: You know, when you first get something in your eye, the first thing that happens is your eye sort of snaps shut on its own, gives you that big stinging sensation and you get kind of a goofy expression on your face with one eye all scrunched up. And the next thing that autonomically happens is the appropriate hand comes up to rub your eye.

Both of those things happen in space and when my hand came up to rub my eye, it went doink off the visor of my spacesuit, which felt kind of stupid and I'm glad nobody was watching. But the reason that that happened was there was contamination inside my spacesuit. I've done two space walks. This was on the first one, though, which is kind of an important moment in your life.

And I don't - I - there was leakage in the suit. There's a water bag in there because you're in a spacesuit for about eight or nine hours so you need to have water. We have just typical - like if you're climbing in the Sierras or something and you got a CamelBak with one of those little bite valves in the top, that's what we have inside our spacesuit. But for whatever reason, mine - I couldn't get any water out of it to drink, but it was starting to leak water in my suit.

So there were little drops of water floating around. And for whatever reason, one of them went into my left eye and it snapped shut, and it stung like the dickens. It was just - like, I couldn't see out of it. I couldn't rub it. And I couldn't touch anything. Like you say, it's like your head's inside a fishbowl. So there I was with one messed up eye and nothing I could do about it except squint and look through my other eye and try and figure out what to do next.

And I figured maybe that's why we have two eyes. So I just sort of kept working and, you know, backup eyes. Eventually, because in space tears don't fall, like you said in the opener there, my eye didn't drain. I was tearing like crazy, crying, trying to flush whatever that contamination was out of my eye.

But it just - because there's no gravity to drain the old fluid away and put in a nice, new, clean tear, it's just a bigger and bigger wall of - ball of contaminated water and - until it crossed the bridge of my nose and went into my right eye and now both eyes.

FLATOW: Oh. So they had two eyes.

HADFIELD: Yeah, both eyes blind, which is a good name for a band. And then I tried to decide what to do, and I figured with one eye, I was OK. But with both eyes blind, I was useless to everybody. So that's when I called down to Houston and said - I don't know. I think I said, Houston, I have a problem.

And I worked in mission control for almost five years. I was a cap com, sort of the astronaut that's in there that's the voice of mission control for 25 shuttle flights. And So I could visualize immediately what a hand grenade that was telling mission control, hey, I'm out on a spacewalk and I'm blind. What do you want me to do? And they gave me all the best advice. I mean, I knew the suit inside and out and they've got all the experts on the ground.

They had some ideas what might be causing the contamination. They asked me, as like step one, to open the purge valve on the side of my helmet to flush whatever contamination was in the suit out. So then I reached up with my left hand and pushed the button and turned it 90 and popped it back into place. So then I'm not only outside alone in space blind, but now I can listen to my oxygen hissing out into the universe, thinking this, you know, this is different. This isn't what I expected to be doing today. And that lasted for quite a while.

But I kept crying and tearing and blinking, and eventually, I teared enough that it diluted the contaminant that I could see again. And so I talked to Houston. They let me close up my purge valve. And after, I don't know, I think it was about a half hour, I could see well enough. I could see shapes and light and dark, and I could get back to work and the business at hand. But it was an interesting 30 minutes during my first spacewalk.

FLATOW: Talking with Chris Hadfield, author of "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything." And that was certainly being prepared for anything on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Of course, I have to ask you about the movie "Gravity," right, because this is exactly what you're talking about, being out there outside. What - anything about that film? I'll tell you one thing that I saw in the film, and you can answer this because you were on the space station for so long. There were a little - there was a fire that broke out there, but there were little balls of flame floating around inside. Is that something that's real, how that would burn in space?

HADFIELD: So, Ira, you saw the movie "Gravity" and the one thing that occurred to you was the small balls of flame? Everything else looked all right to you?

FLATOW: Well, no. I saw the ping pong paddle in the Chinese space station, wondering where is the table, you know, so I...



HADFIELD: I mean, I was at, actually, the North American premiere of the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. I was sitting in the audience. And at the end of it, when the director came out and Sandra Bullock and the writers and such on the stage and they were answering questions, someone in the audience stuck up their hand and said, hey, I hear Commander Hadfield's here in the audience. What did he think of the movie? So I got to run down and jump up on stage. And I'm sure you agree with me the movie is visually beautiful.

FLATOW: Stunning. Stunning.

HADFIELD: And I've been outside for about 15 hours - so 10 times around the world - and the visuals are as accurate. In fact, they're far more accurate than any space movie I've ever seen. If you want to know what it looks like to be out on a spacewalk, go see "Gravity." The visuals - I asked the director when I was on stage, you know, how did you make it look so perfectly beautiful? The story and, you know, the little floating balls of flaming thing, you know, it's all just Hollywood, and it's an entertaining story.

It's not supposed to be a technical textbook or something. You know, it's just - it's a movie. But I really enjoyed it. And it was fun. And Sandra Bullock does a great job and triumphs over all of the great adversity that the storywriters wrote for, you know, you can talk the technical details, but who really cares? It's - no one watches a "Spiderman" movie and starts talking the technical details of web shooting out of your wrists. It's just what it is. It's a movie.

FLATOW: I know some people who might. I mean, you know...


HADFIELD: I suppose, yeah.

FLATOW: "Superman" people - "Superman" comic people always use to write letters to do their editor about things that were wrong with kryptonite. It was, you know, that sort of thing.


FLATOW: We're you able to see a meteorite or anything like that close up while you were out there?

HADFIELD: The Earth gets hit by - our best guess is by about a hundred tons a day of meteorites. So the Earth is a big gravity well that sucks in a hundred tons of meteorites a day. So all of them go through the orbit of the space station, right? They come from outer space, and they end up getting sucked down into the gravity of the Earth. So you'd think you'd see them more. But the natural stuff, it's going fast. You know, some of it is going 30 or 40 kilometers a second, so you can't see any of it.

I never even saw any orbital debris, and there's lots of little bits of orbital debris. But their relative speeds are so high. It's like trying to see a bullet go by. The only time I ever saw anything was twice. In the, whatever, half a year or so I spent in space, I saw two shooting stars. And one was just one of those ones that's such a quick flash it almost looks like you didn't see it. The other one, though, was a big one over Australia at night, and it took several second to burn itself up.

And that one sent a real shiver up my back because that was some big dumb rock from the universe that if it had been just a little higher, it would schmucked(ph) into us and killed us. And I was feeling sort of invincible up until that, and suddenly it changed my perspective that I wasn't inside a battleship or a spaceship. I felt like I was inside an aluminum bubble of air.

FLATOW: All right. Chris Hadfield, talking with us about his new book, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything." And it seems like mortality also. So stay with us. We'll be right back. Talking more with Chris Hadfield after this break. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour with astronaut Chris Hadfield about his life in space and his new book, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth." Chris, I'm sure you've been asked every question in the world about what it's like in space, going around the Earth, inside the space station, working and repairing. What question have you not been asked that you wish someone had asked you?

HADFIELD: Well, I don't know how to put those two questions together, Ira, because I think I've been asked every question in the world so - and several beyond them.


FLATOW: Well, let me try one out.

HADFIELD: Why don't you try one out? Sure.

FLATOW: Let me try one. What is there about - let me ask it in a different way. What is there about space that people don't understand? What is there about the attraction? What is there about going into space that people, you know, a whole generation of - now two generations of people never experienced the '60s, the excitement of this space race to the moon and all those kind of things. What is there about space that you find so interesting that you'd like to share that makes you so interested in space?

HADFIELD: Yeah, it's a good question. I think it's because it's right on the edge of the possible. The reason it's kind of hard to answer is I see the answer peripherally. Yeah, I don't see the answer directly. Let me answer with an indirect answer, and that is yesterday, I went to the - to visit with the folks at Tumblr, one of the social media sites that's really been successful and creative and interesting, and it's a real attractor of young, bright people here in New York.

And it's run - I mean, the CEO is 27 years old, and yet they are doing really interesting, inventive things, creative things and stuff that has nothing to do with space. But they are all fascinated with space flight. They think it's intriguing. They think it's inspiring. In fact, it's kind of a decor for a lot of them of why they're in the work that they're in, is because they are driven by the inspiration of the things that are barely possible.

And the room is packed with people who have a thousand questions when someone like me walks in because they recognize that this is one of the human endeavors that is right at the edge of our capability and are understanding. And it opens the doors to so many other things. And that is, I think, something that people forget about space flight, is it isn't just the experiments, you know, that come directly back or the inventions that come directly back or even just all the little kids last night who were dressed up in Halloween costumes. It's not just that side of space flight.

But it is the actual challenge that drives our - the brightest and the best to push themselves because they recognize that within this organization, this culture, this country, that type of thing is just barely possible. And it motivates them. It motivates them to push themselves to the education and the creative limit that they can come up with.

And that's, for me, when I'm in space and when I'm - more importantly when I'm back on Earth, it's - one of the things I find the most satisfying is the level of inspiration that doing something like this, that being involved in something like this brings out in everybody at a personal level.

FLATOW: You know, I took a tour of the SpaceX factory out in California (unintelligible)

HADFIELD: Yeah. Amazing place, huh?

FLATOW: Amazing place. And I was asking someone who had been around forever - someone my age, in other words - about trying to find - I said, do you have to try to scrape together all those space science, you know, the rocket scientists from the '60s and have them build these things for you? And he said, no, there are a lot of young people who love to get into this thing now. And they know how to build a rocket. They know how to do this sort of thing.

HADFIELD: Yeah. I...

FLATOW: We don't really have to search where they are.


FLATOW: That was really a surprising answer for me.

HADFIELD: Ha. And I wonder how that answer made you feel because I had the same experience when I was there. And I look at Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, as a really classic example of that. A brilliant mind, a restless inventiveness, a huge resolve and confidence to have created PayPal and then to have create Tesla, and then from a standing start, to have created by himself a rocket company that not only builds rocket ships but builds spaceships.

And he is line along with other companies, but he's way at the front of the line to build the next human-raided spaceship to take people to the space station and back. And that's one guy and his fundamental interests. So what really inspires him is space travel and the opportunity and the huge adventure and challenge that is so fundamental, just the basic human nature. And, you know, it's another great example of the same thing that I was just saying, of how it is like giving people something right on the edge of what's tangible and doable. People will push themselves to areas that they just never would have go to otherwise.

FLATOW: So do you think this is - privatization of space is the right way to go? That there's no need for the government to be involved with space at all?

HADFIELD: No. Those two sentences don't make sense together either, Ira. Yes, it's the direction that we naturally will go. It's what happens to every major endeavor like that. If you look at - I don't know - building roads across the country, building airports, building power grids, building communication system, air traffic control, the post - postal system, you need a collective organization to set up the frameworks and do the fundamental groundwork to building infrastructure.

In aviation, it was not going to make the big strides it did until NACA, which was the predecessor of NASA, put vast amounts of resources and time and invention into it to understand streamlining and cajoling and built a huge wind tunnels that allowed that testing to be done, which then enabled commercial aviation to become so much more efficient and, therefore, cost-effective.

And space flight is just in the early stages of that transition right now where it may be cost-effective to have someone be the customer besides the government. And that's the real definition of commercial space flight, is where we change the customer from being just the governments of the world to private citizens.

And we're sort of on the cusp for that. The best example being Richard Branson, who is working so hard with his - with Virgin Galactic to allow wealthy citizens but still private citizens to be able to go to the bottom edges of space to actually see what the first taste of space flight is like. And that's - I think, that's how it has to go. That's how it's always gone in all other industries, and it's just a part. And we're still brand new at it. But, yeah, I'm all for it. That's where we have to go. It's not like they're at odds with each other. It's just the natural and historical progression.

FLATOW: Let's talk about your talent for bridging science and the arts. And you're a prime example of someone who - in - with feet in both worlds, the two cultures. Now, specifically, let's talk about "Space Oddity". It has more views on YouTube than the original by David Bowie.


HADFIELD: It's not ironic. That's just funny.

FLATOW: Give us the - I don't know if we - shall we play a little bit of it first and then talk about it, or should we talk about it a little bit first. Let's listen to some of it now, and then we'll talk a little bit about it. This is your version of "Space Oddity."


HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom, lock your Soyuz hatch and put your helmet on. Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown engines on.

FLATOW: All right. Let's play that a little bit underneath us, but I want to talk a little bit about, how did this all come about? How did you get - David Bowie wrote a special version for you, correct?

HADFIELD: No. This really came about because of the schism between the generations. My - I was using social media. I recorded a song while I was on orbit that my brother and I had written, a Christmas carol, and recorded that. And as soon as people heard that I played music, my son who was very active in our social media - his name Evan Hadfield - he started getting a million request for "Space Oddity". Oddly enough, everyone around the world were saying, hey, tell your dad to record "Space Oddity".

So Evan sent me a note on the space station. He said, hey, dad. You got to record "Space Oddity." And I was thinking, "Space Oddity"? Like, how the - why would I do "Space Oddity"? It's David Bowie and it's kind of a psychedelic song from the '60s where the astronaut dies again. And I don't - so it wasn't David Bowie that rewrote those lyrics. It was Evan, my son, because that was the deal I had with him.

FLATOW: Is that right?

HADFIELD: I said, Evan, if you rewrite the words so that the astronaut lives, I'll record it. And it was a snowball thing. I did just the karaoke version and - but I like how my voice sounded. And then that clip you just played there, the piano part, was put in by a musician named Emm Gryner, who - she used to tour with Bowie, and I knew her from before. And when she heard my vocal version, she said, oh, let me put a little piano under that. And then a friend of hers named Joe Corcoran put the other instrumentals underneath. It's kind of like had a life of its own.

And then Evan said - again our son, he said, hey, you have to make a video. It doesn't have a video. You might as well have done it in your basement. So I - we got permission from Bowie through - it was - it's not an easy thing to do, of course. But he really liked the audio version. We got permission. I spent a couple of hours in a weekend floating around, filming myself, singing "Space Oddity". And then my son Evan and an editor named Andrew Tidby put together the video and the space agency - the Canadian Space Agency was great in getting all the hustle through.

And the end result was a version of "Space Oddity" that way outstripped anybody's expectations. I mean, it's been seen - just that one YouTube clip has been viewed almost 20 million times. And the rebroadcast and everything of it, it's in the hundreds of millions of time. And even David Bowie himself said it was as good a version of that song as it had ever been done. So, yeah, it's amazing what happens when you listen to the advice of your son.

FLATOW: Is there - well, is there a lesson here? Or is it a demonstration of something that we don't know about?

HADFIELD: Actually, yeah. I appreciate you asking that. As you mentioned at the outset, I flew in space three times. And it is a magnificent experience for all different reasons: for the human challenge of it, for the straight, raw view and understanding of the Earth that comes from it, for the science and research that it allows us to do up there, for the wonder of doing something really hard and doing it well. It's a great personal and professional experience, but it's one that is way too good to keep to yourself. And on all three flights, I did my best to share it.

But the technology - when I flew back, I helped built part of the Russian space station Mir back in '95. The technology was so limited. Our pipeline - to be able to send information up and down, it was pre-Internet, pre-digital photography. It was very limited. Now, I could take a picture of Boston, the night of the bombing, and go down to my quarters and stick it in my computer, have a look at it and write something about - maybe this view of the beauty and natural peace in this part of the world will help settle down the emotions after the atrocities of the day or something like that, and then send it to the Earth.

And within minutes, anybody who was interested, millions of people could share in the perspective that we have built with the Space Station. And being able to invite people onboard to see that it's more than just a laboratory, more than just a place where robots do quantum physics experiments, this is an extension of a perspective on our self. And it's science but it's also art and music. And to be able to make that video, I think the reason it went so viral is because the song is inherently great.

But the song was originally just all sort of theoretical and, you know, like, just a thought. But it takes that ethereal thought of that art and it shows that it's real. This is an actual person singing this song in a place where what's happening looks like magic. And that overlap of reality and imagination and art and magic is what the Space Station is. And that's what I found really important to try and share with people, and so I was really pleased that my son talked me into it but also that so many people, of their own volition, reacted the way that they did.


I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Chris Hadfield about life in space and his new book, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth." Does this not argue then for leaving a space station or for finding a permanent way to stay in space because it is - crosses cultures, it crosses all kinds of boundaries, art, science, music, inspiration?

HADFIELD: I think so, Ira. It's really inevitable and undeniable. The human spirit of exploration, of taking the best of our inventions and letting them take us as far as they possibly can in order to stretch our awareness and our understanding and our capabilities.

And this month, we actually celebrate 13 years of continuous human exodus from Earth. We left Earth 13 years ago on the Space Station. Now, of course, the Russian - the Soviets originally, and then the Russians had previous space stations, so it's been going on longer than that. But on the International Space Station, which is really the leading countries of the world working together - in the face of the Cold War and the Second World War and other recent enmities, but working together, we have left Earth as one combined group for the last 13 years. And it's still going on.

FLATOW: Right.

HADFIELD: And so that - it's a first really important step. It's not that far away. And it's not on the moon yet or on asteroids or Mars, but it is an important step. And it's been a great one for me to have been part of.

FLATOW: What are your thoughts about the prohibition of the U.S. from cooperating with China in space efforts?

HADFIELD: Oh, I fully understand the concerns. So much of what we know about space flight is the result of very hard-earned research and a lot of taxpayer money spent and a lot of things that if you just gave all that away, not only did you waste a lot of money but also you're maybe giving away things that have applications, military or otherwise, that you don't want to just spread willy-nilly around the world. I understand the concern, but you could've said exactly the same thing about the Soviet Union in 1989.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

HADFIELD: And yet five years later, I used Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Canadian robot arm to help build the Russian space station Mir. I used to be a fighter pilot intercepting Soviet bombers that were practicing attacking North America, so the juxtaposition is really strong in my own personal experience. And so it's hard, and it's not natural right now. It kind of flies in the face of history.

But I think, inevitably, we will find and maybe use space like it's been used before - as a symbol and as rallying point, as a common enemy so that it helps unite people on Earth that otherwise might not be getting along. And I really hope that we find a way, whether it's the U.S. or one of the other international partners, and then eventually all of us. But I really hope we find a way to do this really, truly as a species and not just as factions against each other.

FLATOW: Well, Chris, good luck with the book.

HADFIELD: Thank you.

FLATOW: Chris Hadfield...

HADFIELD: Thanks, Ira. I really appreciate it.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Retired astronaut, author of the new book, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth." Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Wish I could've been there with you in the New York studios. Next time.

HADFIELD: I look forward to meeting you in person in the future. Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: You too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.