When Chris Hadfield was a kid, space travel was impossible.
The only concept of space travel existed in comic books, which he devoured religiously, following Buck Rodgers and Superman before James Tiberius Kirk and the starship Enterprise hit the television airwaves.
Yet, as Hadfield got older, the pioneers of space travel such as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American astronaut Neil Armstrong eventually turned the impossible into a reality.
“When I was a kid, space flight was almost pretend. It was all comic books and science fiction and Star Trek and stuff like that,” Hadfield said. “But it was also, for the very first time in history, starting to become real, where Gagarin flew, then Al Sheppard, then people walked on the moon.”
It was a reality that Hadfield wanted to experience for himself, which he did through three trips to outer space from 1995-2013, one of which he was the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) for five months.
Hadfield, one of Canada’s most decorated astronauts, was in Cranbrook on Friday delivering a presentation to students at Western Financial Place to talk about his extraordinary experience as an astronaut and to encourage them to pursue their dreams.
“I think the things we accomplish in life are kind of a reflection of the edges of our expectations,” Hadfield said, in a press conference before the event. “Often, our accomplishments in life are also limited by the horizons that we’ve seen growing up.
“So a large part, as one of Canada’s astronauts — where I have had tremendous privilege, but also a pretty amazing perspective — is to let other people perhaps see opportunities that they might not have realized existed and to see parts of the world with a familiarity that seems just theoretical or hypothetical.”
Hadfield met with local media before getting onstage to talk about his time on board the ISS, the experiences of space flight and performed a song with his guitar that he wrote with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies.
After watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, Hadfield began to dream of one day going into space. He joined Air Cadets and obtained his pilot’s license before he even had his driver’s license.
Enlisting with the Royal Canadian Air Force, he trained in fighter jets such as the CF-18 and completed research work on pitch control margin simulation and flight with NASA as an exchange officer with the US Navy in the late 1980s.
Out a field of 5,300 candidates, he was accepted as one of four new Canadian astronauts along with Julie Payette, who was recently appointed as Canada’s Governor General, in 1992.
From there, he went on to train and work with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA in the United States and in Russia and was involved with three spaceflights to Mir, the old Soviet-era space station, and the ISS.
Hadfield spoke about the stupidity of using booster rockets — essentially a controlled explosion for 40 seconds that once sparked, can’t be shut off — but illustrated his point by talking about how it got the job done and the evolution of technology.
He cited modern day aircraft, which is much different from the first airplanes that went to flight over 100 years ago, and added that spaceflight will be much different as technology continues to change.
Being able to observe the Earth in over 2,600 orbits from a completely unique perspective allows for reflection on the human condition, Hadfield said.
“We are at an absolute zenith of quality of life around the world,” Hadfield said. “We have eliminated major diseases, the world’s literacy has gone from 50 per cent to 80 per cent in the last 25 years.
In the last century, the entire population of Europe died of small pox, and we’ve eliminated that disease on Earth. Polio is just about eliminated.
“It’s technology and human inventiveness that allow those things to happen. I think that is something to focus on. How is it that we are inventive? What is the technology that is allowing this civilization to thrive right now and what do we need to do next? Where should we be focusing? How well can we understand our own Earth and draw conclusions about what we should be trying to do next? What have we done right in the past? What have we done wrong?
“When you get to ride on some of the most cutting-edge technology and see the world in a way we’ve never seen it before, it makes you think about all of those opportunities and responsibilities.”
Humans have been going into space for over 50 years; first it was orbiting the Earth, then it was landing on the moon. The Americans launched the first space station with Skylab in 1973 before the Russians responded with Mir in 1986.
The first module for the ISS was launched in 1998 and the newest space station has grown over the years with additional modules for research, laboratory experiments or cargo storage.
Hadfield became a household name during his time in the ISS in 2013 due to his use of social media, where he would upload videos about the day-to-day details of life as a astronaut. He also used an on-board guitar to record a version of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ with him playing and singing in different sections of the station.
With the private sector stepping into the development of space flight technology, such as SpaceX or Blue Origin, space exploration is continuing to captivate the public imagination, especially as a manned mission to Mars gets more and more traction.
All of that will take continued global cooperation, said Hadfield.
“The major nations of the world that are always fighting down here on the surface just agreed to build a deep-space gateway orbiting the moon,” he said. “And that’s what we’ll be doing for the next 20 years — going from the space station to the moon, start building a research outpost on the moon like we did in Antarctica over the last 50 years and slowly, as our technology gets better and the costs come down, just like we’ve been doing for 100,000 years: take our technology, allows us to move to a place, make it part of the human experience, understand it better and continue to improve the quality of life as best we can.”
Exploration, not just of space, but of the world around us, is a part of what makes us human, Hadfield said.
“Exploration isn’t just scientific and technical; it’s human,” he said. “Otherwise we’d just send robots to do it, but robots don’t care. They can tell you what the temperature is but they don’t care what the temperature is. We’re the ones that matter and to be able to have people interpreting what’s happening is what is of real value and real interest.
“Sending a drone across the Atlantic is something, but Columbus or someone in a rowboat or whomever, has big human impact. So onboard the space station, it seems a little remote and technical and clinical, but it’s actually just six people up there and they’re imperfect and doing their best.
Hadfield’s presentation included photos of his time in the ISS and videos, including a short clip of how water behaves when wringing out a cloth in zero gravity. The kids even got the chance to interact and ask some questions afterwards before he headed up to the main concourse for autographs and book signings. He also just finished filming a series on what goes into the astronaut selection process which will air on BBC Earth.