‘I don’t think I was the first person to cross the Atlantic to think Ireland is beautiful, but I did it more than most’

Q&A: Former International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield

Former International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield captured the attention of the world with his use of social media. He was in Ireland over the weekend to promote his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth and spoke to The Irish Times

You spent more than five months on board the ISS. How has life been for you since you returned to Earth on May 13th?

It has been really good. There was a real hard physical adaptation at first. There are a lot of physical changes that happen to your body. It really enjoys being weightless. When you come back to Earth, it really pays the price for not having lifted a finger, literally, for five months.

Everything seems just so unfair and so heavy. Even at the time I remember remarking that you have to lift up your tongue to talk. Your tongue actually has weight. It’s like talking standing on your head.


It’s something as subtle as trying to get my cardiovascular system and blood pressure regulation right. My balance was shot. It took about two to three weeks until I felt mostly normal.

It took me three or four months before I could walk properly again. My first couple of months of running were just plodding. After about four months, I felt I could run normally again. I’m still growing bone back. I lost about eight per cent of my bone.

Has it been easy psychologically to make the adjustment to living back on Earth?

It’s been fine. I worked really hard to stay connected with family and friends and all the folks that were paying attention. It has not been bad at all.

It took about a month before I felt like I had emerged from a bit of a daze. I fell a little bit behind all the time. You felt you were being led around quite a bit.

You decided to retire after returning from the ISS. Why was that?

My wife and I have talking about it for years. When is the right time to retire? What makes sense?

The threshold we set was when we know for sure that there would never be a chance to fly in space again. That would be a good time to think about retiring.

Also her point was that if you ever had two days in a row when you are dreading going to work, that’s a good time to think about change. I never even had one day in a row as an astronaut like that. I loved the job.

But I’ve been an astronaut for 21 years which is long enough for anyone.

Do you miss being an astronaut?

I really don’t miss it. I don’t spend much time looking backwards. I’m much more interested in what is coming. There is so much opportunity and things ahead.

I’ve done some interesting things. I’ve lived at the bottom of the ocean. I was an F18 pilot intercepting Soviet bombers over the Atlantic. I’ve done other interesting things. I don’t spend much time looking back and wishing it was 30 years ago. There’s all kind of stuff I want to do.

You are probably the most famous astronaut since the Apollo missions. How has that been for you?

I’ve seen that. It’s hard to measure it because you don’t see everybody at once. I sort of meet individuals in various places, but everywhere I go, it feels like I already know some people. I feel like we’ve sort of met which is quite pleasant. It feels like I’ve already had an introduction everywhere I went. People aren’t invasive. It’s been quite pleasant.

Have you seen your children since coming back from orbit in May?

I've seen Kristin (who is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin)at a wedding in Washington DC when I was there. I haven't seen my eldest son (Kyle) at all. He's in China. Evan (who is based in Germany) I see regularly.

What is it about Ireland when you were in orbit that you seemed to focus on so intently?

It is beautiful after crossing the Atlantic to hit landfall and see Ireland as the first place coming across. I don’t think I was the first person to cross the Atlantic to think Ireland is beautiful, but I did it more than most.

We see the International Space Station a lot in Irish skies. Did your orbit take you across Ireland all the time?

We only go about 51.6 degrees north, so that arcs almost straight across Ireland so therefore because our orbit is an arc, you see it at the start, the middle and the end of the arc. You see this part of the world much more than you would the equator. Because it is the first landfall you see after cross the Atlantic, you are looking for it.

You write in your book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life that your antecedents are from the north of England and the south of Scotland. Yet you seem to have a great cultural affinity with Ireland and especially with The Chieftains. Why is that?

I have played with The Chieftains in a couple of places and in orbit where we did Moondance. (February 15th. The band were in Houston). I played with them over at the Celtic Festival in Lorient in Brittany at the big Celtic festival that goes on over there. I played with Paddy (Maloney) once and in Houston a few times. It is always a treat to see them. Van Morrison I've never met or played with though he is a terrific.

On St Patrick’s Day you sang Danny Boy in orbit and you were wearing a green dicky-bow. How did you have the presence of mind to bring it on to the ISS?

That was a co-operative effort between my wife and myself. Since I was commander on the ISS, I looked ahead to every holiday that was going to occur while the crew was up there, not just the holidays that I celebrated. Things may not be going well so you need a way to celebrate and have fun.

I looked ahead and I saw St Patrick’s Day coming. I told her she needed to send something up for St Patrick’s Day. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but what she sent was perfect. Each unmanned ship that comes up has a little package of stuff, a small satchel you are allowed for yourself. We call it a crew care package. She sent up a green dicky-bow.

Were you conscious that people in Ireland were paying attention to you while you were in space?

I was. You just could see and hear everything. Because Twitter is two-way, you can feel and hear the response to what was going on. I see so many people responding and so many people sending good wishes.

We had a lot of clear weather over Ireland so we were able to take a lot of pictures. (It was an exceptionally cold and clear spring in Ireland)

In February, you sent out the famous tweet: “Ta Eire fioralainn! Land of green hills and dark beer. With capital Dublin glowing in the Irish night.” How did you manage to get the Irish right right down to the fadas in the right place?

I talked with my son Evan and told him I really wanted to honour the people and be respectful so I asked him to look it up and make sure it was just right. I don’t speak Irish but I made sure that I was going to be respectful. It is not often that someone is going to be tweeting in Irish from space, maybe not ever.

Your version of Space Oddity has been viewed 19.5 million times on YouTube. How do you feel about that?

That’s just one version of it. When you count the rebroadcasts, it is in the hundreds of millions. It’s crazy. I had no idea it was going to go like that. I was only doing it as a father-son project.

I did it originally just as a favour for him. People were asking me from all over the world, but he was absolutely insistent that I do it. He goaded me into it. It came out so much better than I thought would do. It came up beautiful. It is a real tribute to David Bowie. He wrote that in the late 1960s before we even walked on the Moon.

Yet he somehow got the feel of space so when you sang it there, it meant something. That is a pretty good measure of him.

Have you been in touch with David Bowie since you recorded the song?

Just by email. He has said since that it is the best cover of this song ever done. It’s pretty high praise for a father and son weekend project.

On the subject of the Moon, mankind hasn’t been back since 1972. Do you think it is time that we went back to the Moon and on to Mars?

I think the words ‘going back to the Moon’ are a real mistake. We’re not going back anywhere. We sent probes everywhere to see what is habitable, what is worth going to.

Really the lunar landings were just one of our early probes to see if that is a place we could go to, to see how good our technology is.

The stuff that the robotic probes discovered on Mars is fascinating. We’ve even got a probe going to Pluto right now.

Based on that information, I think the obvious next logical step for habitation is the Moon. We've been living on the space station for 13 years, it's sort of like sailing up and down the coast of Europe within sight of land, trying to figure out what you make your boat out of and how do you chink the seams so that it doesn't leak.

How do you keep people healthy? You have to learn that very close to land before you go West. The space station is doing that. We have to learn to build the hardware to allow us to safely go further.

The obvious logical step is not to jump from here to Mars which is six months away. The obvious step is to go to the Moon which is only three days away. We need to invent navigation and communication, power generation and in-situ resource management and all kinds of stuff.

I’m sure the Moon is where we will go next.

Will we see a Mars landing in your lifetime?

With people, I don’t think so with the engines that exist.

People emigrate because the new place is better than the old place. We're only going to go to place like Mars for some reason. Antarctica is a great parallel to me. There are 100 people who winter-over at the South Pole. It took about 100 years from when Shackleton was down there. When he went, it was right at the edge of technology. They barely made it.

Now people lived there safely because of inventions. We will send unmanned probes to the Moon and then we’ll starting building a habitat and set up a permanent base. There’s no big rush. It will happen. It is really predicated on the technology we need to invent.

I read a book about the moonwalkers and how many of them were changed spiritually by the experience. Did the same thing happen to you?

For the moonwalkers, it was a bigger surprise to them than it is for us now. It was such a shock that they could cover up the world with their thumbs. It happened so fast for them. I was an astronaut for 21 years. They didn’t do any psychological preparation. All of their preparation was technical. We do psychological support. We have lots of people to talk to.

I don’t know any latter-day astronauts who have had some kind of epiphany or something as a result of flying. It is spiritual for sure. Whatever got you there, it is hugely reinforcing to see the world that way whatever your belief system is. You don’t get to be an astronaut by being wishy-washy about stuff. You’ve got something that gives you strength. Flying in space reinforces it.

When you look down at the pale blue dot we all call home, do you ever wonder why we can’t all live on it in peace?

The Earth is a big beautiful thing that has been here 4.5 billion years and that has survived asteroid impacts, huge supervolcanos, pulses from the sun and ice ages and we get all worried because some of us decide to fight over something that is hard to explain 100 years later. Why did we fight the First World War? It is kind of hard to explain nowadays.

What, from your vantage point in space, was the most beautiful place on the planet?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’d say visually it was the Bahamas because the reefs are so widespread and the tongue of the ocean at the continental shelf comes way in so there is a super deep reef up the middle. It is gorgeous. If aliens come and take family pictures flying over the world, they’ll go home and show each other pictures of the Bahamas.

You can see the green of Ireland in the spring time and it is lovely, but if you are looking for straight rainbow kind of impact, the Bahamas are the prettiest.

What has been the reaction back in your native Canada since your return?

It’s been unbelievable in Canada. My picture is on the five dollar bill. It’s crazy.

The reaction of national pride is wonderful, but it is huge and pervasive. The publisher says that he has never seen the reaction to a book as he did to mine. It’s sold 300,000 copies in a country of 30 million people. It’s been nuts.

How did you manage to write it so quickly?

I’ve been writing it for years. It wasn’t a sudden idea for me. I started working on it seven or eight years ago, in earnest a little over two years ago, but I’m really pleased with the reaction.

* Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is published now.

Cmdr Hadfield will be returning next month to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural Laya Healthcare Pendulum summit in the Convention Centre Dublin on January 9th.

He will also sign copies of his book on Saturday, January 11th, at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times