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Chris Hadfield on the magnificence of space

Ian Chaddock

BY Ian Chaddock

17th Oct 2023 Inspire

6 min read

Chris Hadfield on the magnificence of space
With awe-inspiring careers as an astronaut, test and fighter pilot and author of multiple books (both fiction and non-fiction), Chris Hadfield looks back on his incredible life so far
Chris Hadfield, 64, is a Canadian astronaut who’s a veteran of three spaceflights and served as Commander of the International Space Station.
He’s also been a combat fighter pilot and a test pilot, played a version of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in space and is an author who has written books like An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, The Apollo Murders and his new second novel, The Defector. 

Childhood

Chris Hadfield as a five-year-old boy
As a nine-year-old boy I was growing up on a farm and dreaming of going to space. I watched shuttle launches, as well as Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I imagined going to space when I looked up at all the stars in the night sky.
"That child's dreams would come true—he would grow up to pilot and command spaceships"
I wish I could tell that child that his dreams would come true and that he would grow up to pilot and command spaceships.

Fighter pilot and test pilot

Chris Hadfield piloting an F-18 combat fighter
I flew F-18 combat fighters in the Cold War and I was a test pilot with the US Air Force and US Navy, even though I’m Canadian. I’ve flown about 100 different types of aeroplanes, including many jet fighters and a few propeller fighters. I’ve flown a Spitfire, F-86 Sabre, F-18, F-16 and F-4—many different, high- performance aeroplanes.
In my new novel The Defector, the opening scene is an F-4 in combat. Being able to draw on my experience, as an F-18 pilot and then as a test pilot, really gave me a depth and platform to talk about it with knowledge and from the inside. Hopefully, I can really let people know what it feels like when you’re in combat or when you’re manoeuvring a plane that’s right at the edge.
I ran a programme that made F-18s a safer and more capable aeroplane. When I was a test pilot with the US Navy, out in the fleet they were crashing the two- seat F-18s on a regular basis. They would go out of control and the only thing that would save them was the ejection seat. It was very high risk of loss of life, as well as obviously the expense of losing an air frame.
The programme that me and some engineers pitched boiled down to me in the airplane deliberately putting it out of control. I was pretty sure that we were high enough and I would get it under control again and we did it and gained confidence the more we did it. We put a new sensor on the nose of the F-18s and used that information to change the flight control laws.
We saved lots of aeroplanes and, I expect, some lives. It was a great programme, but it was quite a challenge to run it safely.

Space exploration

Chris Hadfield in his space suit
When you first arrive in space you've ridden eight and a half minutes on an extremely wild, powerful ride on a rocket ship. However, it’s short enough that it’s more like driving a car at maximum performance on a very rough road. As soon as you get to weightlessness your body is now in a fundamentally different environment, for up to (in my case) five or six months, with no gravity and high radiation.
The immediate natural reaction to weightlessness is nausea and exhaustion. Obviously, if you have a problem with your spaceship you don’t want to be throwing up and tired, so we take anti-motion sickness medicine. After a couple of days your body adapts to it.
Using the Cardiolab for health monitoring on the International Space Station
A lack of gravity causes significant changes to your body. Your body gets slightly longer, because your back isn’t being compressed by gravity and is instead being stretched, giving you back pain. There’s no gravity to push the blood out of your head, so your face gets fatter and kind of red.
The intra-cranial pressure increases as well and your eyeballs deform slightly (changing a lot of people’s prescription). Your sinuses clog up because there’s nothing to drain your sinuses. I tell people, “If you want to feel what it’s like, stand on your head for three or four hours”. You lose your skeleton. We have bad osteoporosis because the human body doesn’t need a heavy skeleton if you’re not fighting gravity.
All these things take about a month to stabilise in orbit and obviously when you come back, all those things have to reverse. The one that takes the longest is getting your bone density back. I lost about eight per cent of my bone density, especially in the weight-bearing part of my body—the hips and the femur. It took about a year and a half to get back to pre-launch density. But I’d go do it again in a heartbeat. If it’s travelling in space and exploring the universe, it’s fine—it’s just part of the deal.

Beauty of Earth

It's beyond beautiful to see the world the way I've seen it. I’ve been around it 2,650 times, so I’ve seen more than my share of sunrises and sunsets. I’ve seen just such magnificence.
"I've seen such magnificence—from the length of the Himalayas to 2,000 miles of thunderstorms across Indonesia and Malaysia"
To be able to glance the entire length of the Himalayas. To be able to look all the way from Stockholm to Gibraltar, in a glance. To see the fires of Australia, when things are burning. To see 2,000 miles of thunderstorms across Indonesia and Malaysia, when the entire cloud tops are contagious with lightning. It’s extremely mind-expanding, to get the true reality of our world.

Perhaps the most impactful is to see something rare. One dawn, before the sun had risen across the Indian Ocean, I was in the cupola with my camera looking down at the world and trying to steal every moment I could. There was an unearthly glow above the atmosphere, almost like shimmering grey-blue waves. I took all the pictures I could.
It’s a very rare and hard-to-see cloud that glows in the night called noctilucent clouds. It was just the right angle between the sun behind the horizon and the right rare collection of ice crystals, high in the atmosphere above the stratosphere. It was almost like a surreal rainbow. Because of our speed at five miles a second, we were skimming across it. I felt like the world had just shown me a secret.

Famous zero gravity cover of "Space Oddity"

My zero gravity cover of "Space Oddity" gave David Bowie great joy. On my first time in space I was on the cover of Time magazine, so it wasn’t the first brush with fame I’d had. I’ve been a musician my whole life and played in bands. But it’s audacious to cover a terrific musician’s song and I sort of got talked into it by my son.

There was something very prescient in the way Bowie wrote “Space Oddity”—it seemed right on board a spaceship. With just imagining it he somehow captured what the actual feeling is like.
"Bowie got to see the song played in space—where he always wanted to go"
The version of the song is something I’m very proud of. Two years before the end of his life, when he probably privately knew that something was coming, he got to see the song played in a place that he always wanted to go. Hundreds of millions of people have seen my version of “Oddity”, which is fine, but I’m just so happy that it put a smile on Bowie’s face.

Knowing the risks of space

Looking down at the Earth one night, I saw a big shooting star, with a long, trailing flame. That’s just a big, random rock from the universe that has been trapped by the Earth’s gravity and because of its speed is developing friction and burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. You can’t help but think, That rock just went by us. It did send a shiver up my back thinking it could have just as easily come through our spaceship. It was big enough to punch a significant hole in our ship and probably would have killed all of us.
"A shooting star passed us but could have just as easily come through our spaceship and killed all of us"
That happens on Earth too, with random events you can’t do much about them—you can either let them drive you crazy or not. We practise depressurising procedures and I know what the armour is on the outside of the ship and how to repair holes in the ship. But if a random event is large enough, you’re dead. It was dangerous, risk-filled, incredibly beautiful and fulfilling. Being ready and prepared, to me, is the best way to go through life.

Life as a best-selling novelist

The cover of Chris Hadfield's second novel, The Defector,
When I wrote The Apollo Murders and my second novel, The Defector, I based them on my own experiences. I've flown in space three times. It gave me a terrific perspective and depth to be able to write The Apollo Murders.
The Defector is about a defection of a top-end Soviet fighter in 1973. The story starts on September 5, 1973, which is the eve of the Yom Kippur War in Israel. The story is about 90 per cent real.
My plot is interwoven with things that were actually happening and over half of my characters are real people—Golda Meir, Nixon, Kissinger. To me, that makes it more interesting. I want it to be so real that you can’t actually tell which parts are real and which parts are just the story. 
Banner photo: Courtesy of MasterClass
The Defector by Chris Hadfield is published by Quercus and is out now, priced £20
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