Chris Hadfield is the first Canadian to walk in space, and also the first Canadian to command the International Space Station. Many of the videos he posted while in orbit became internet sensations, especially his zero-gravity rendition of the David Bowie song “Space Oddity,” which has been viewed over twenty million times on YouTube. His memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is out now.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
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In your new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, you mentioned that growing up, one of your interests was reading science fiction. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you first got into reading science fiction and who some of your favorite authors were?
I’ve always liked reading, of course, and science fiction just pushes the edge of what is exciting and possible at the edge of imagination. I read several different types of science fiction books growing up. I’m not sure I was as fanatic as some, but I was definitely a lot more than others. I liked a lot of the short stories of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, of course. I read some of the early science fiction as well, Edgar Rice Burroughs and stuff, science fiction that I found quite interesting to look at through sort of the Victorian side. Mysterious Island by Jules Verne—that type of early science fiction, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, those were really interesting to read. I really enjoyed A Canticle for Leibowitz and then The Sheep Look Up I thought [had some] interesting insight as well.
In interviews, I also saw you mention Alfred Bester and Robert Heinlein.
I enjoyed Heinlein as well. I thought he was a very original writer and [offered] a lot of original thinking. I read it all kind of voraciously. I was not an analytical reader, and I wasn’t writing reviews for anybody at the time, it was mostly just letting those good writers help my imagination stretch and soar.
You mentioned Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories. Do any of those short stories stick out in your mind?
Gosh, I knew you were going to ask me specifics, and I didn’t study up in advance. There was one, and I can’t remember, it might have been Asimov or [maybe] it was Clarke; I remember one [where the author] wrote the entire story so they could come up with the pun of a “star-mangled spanner,” which was kind of disappointing to get to.
But there was another where they solved the propulsion problem just by punching a hole by, I think, their water tank on board in order to get a vectored thrust that would allow them to save the day.
I actually thought of that while I was living on the space station, thinking “What a clever and interesting idea,” because when we vent things from the space station or when we vented them from a space shuttle, they’re almost always propulsive to some degree. We do our best with t-junctions and t-bells to try to take their propulsive nature away, but often they end up different than you expect.
I got to meet Arthur C. Clarke and spend a day with him walking around space shuttles at The Kennedy Space Center. I was his escort for a day back in the early ’90s, which was a fascinating day for me. Kind of surreal to talk to a man who I felt obliged to use his middle initial every time I talked to him, which isn’t normally how I greet people. He was such a visionary—not just as an author, but [because of] the science element behind [his stories] and the projects he always worked on. There’s [even] an orbit named after him, The Clarke Orbit.
He was just so prescient, and he was behind 2001, which became such an influential movie. I watched it when it was first in the theaters, so that crossover was really important to me.
I’m not sure who wrote that story specifically about the water vent, punching a hole in a tank in order to get a propulsive solution to their problem, but even in the recent movie Gravity, basically they were looking for the same sort of crazy solution to how do you get propulsion out of a system that isn’t going to give it to you, and I thought when I first read it that that was a clever idea, and I kept that clever idea in the back of my mind even when I was living in space, just in case.
I would imagine, if you’re flying in space, that your mind would often go back to science fiction that you’ve read; it would remind you of things. Were there other examples of that that you could think of?
Something funny that happened: I flew in space first back in 1995 on the space shuttle Atlantis, and we went to help build the Russian space station Mir. One of the most powerful things that you experience in orbit, of course, are the views of the world. It is such an omnipresence, an undeniable draw to your eyes—the beauty of it.
When I came back a month or two later, and I was sitting with my wife on the couch, and we were flipping through channels, the original [series] of Star Trek came on with that sort of iconic scene of Kirk sitting in his chair and looking forward, and there is that view of the world sort of rolling by at orbital speed underneath you. I was shocked because it was exactly right. I actually said to my wife, “It looks just like that! That’s exactly how it looks.” I remember just being delighted at the crossover.
You mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I saw that you called that the most realistic science fiction movie. What’s something that sticks in your mind that just is really true to life in that movie?
When Dave was in the process of trying to fight HAL, and eventually lobotomize him, what he heard when he was outside on his spacewalk was absolutely dominated by his own breathing. The directors of the movie recognized that it wouldn’t be silent outside. If you’re wearing a voice-activated microphone, and you’re out there working hard, you’re going to hear your own breath in the headset, and you’re sort of going to be maybe a little more aware of your own existence because you’re alone. It is just you inside some bubble of air that is held around your body in the universe.
When I did spacewalks, I remember remarking to myself, after I got over the initial rush of seeing the world that way, I started comparing it with the written and movie portrayals of it, and thinking, “Wow, in 2001 they guessed right.” They did an accurate portrayal of the sense of aloneness and the sounds and what it would really be like, and it helped to be slightly more familiar.
Speaking of HAL, I saw you tweeted that at one point you were servicing a computer on the space station and noticed that the person on the ground you were talking to was named Hal.
That was beyond irony, and I couldn’t let it pass, but the Hal that I was talking to had worked for NASA for many years. He’s a US Air Force pilot who had retired from the Air Force and come to work for NASA, and was very experienced as a Capcom—one of the people working in mission control. On that day we had been trying to help out with a major upgrade of the software that commands and controls the whole space station, and [both] ground and we had thrown the switch—basically when the new software was going to take control—we lost control and everything crashed, and the vehicle went stupid. So it was a pretty busy afternoon as we tried to recover from a loss of command and control of a great big ship, but I also I just thought it was funny that it was Hal down there we were talking to, and to say, “I’m sorry, Hal, that’s not possible right now.” The irony of it was not lost on Hal either, but he has a pretty dry wit anyway, so he just took it in good stride.
You mentioned Star Trek, and I saw that you were tweeting to William Shatner.
Not just with William Shatner but with several members of the cast as well. Social media is a wonderful way to share communication and to share an experience, and when you’re doing something on behalf of literally billions of people it’s nice to be able to share it as simply and widely as possible. I was primarily using Twitter on board because it took the least amount of time for me to share as much information. I could just take a picture and then just send it—via Twitter with a caption—to the world.
My son, Evan, was managing the ground version of it, looking at all the social media sites and working with them and working with regular media and such to try and make sure that people were seeing it and that it was sending. He said, “Hey, look, William Shatner has written you a note back. You’ve got to reply.” So I found it very funny because, of course, the blending in my mind of fact and fiction when Star Trek was on was complete. I was seven or eight, I couldn’t tell the difference between a comic book hero and a real person, and so for James Tiberius Kirk to send me an email or a communique while I was actually living on board a space station was such a delightful crossover of fact and fantasy.
I couldn’t let it go by, so I thought I’d have a little fun with it, and just typed out a quick answer back to him. It opened up communication between us and we ended up having a long conversation afterward not just on Twitter, but actually he phoned through the Canadian space agency up to the space station. We had a long, really interesting, far-ranging conversation about the future and the work that we were doing and the capability of the spaceships and the changes in time. I’ve spoken to him several times since, and he’s a really interesting guy to get to know, which was delightful since for me as a kid, he was Captain Kirk.
I actually saw you say that Galaxy Quest is your favorite movie.
It’s not my favorite movie, but it’s one of my favorite movies. I think it’s my favorite space movie just because it is such a great send-up, but not a slapstick one. It takes a genre of film, and the genre of all of the comic-cons, and all of the Trekkies, and all of that, and it blends them together in just as perfect a way as anybody could imagine. The casting in it, I’m not even sure how intended the casting was, but it ended up being inspired with Sigourney Weaver just being so brilliant in that role, just comically good, and of course Tim Allen as the washed-up person, but who actually could rise to the occasion as needed. And each of the characters really being interesting and sort of an amalgamated character of a lot of different space movies fundamentally based on Star Trek. I just found it delightful and with so many memorable lines in it.
I just love the moment in that movie where there’s the kid who’s basically the ultimate Star Trek fan, and Tim Allen calls him on the phone, and the kid says, “Look, I know it’s all made up. It’s just a TV show,” and Tim Allen says, “Listen to me, it’s all real,” and the kid says, “I knew it!”
“I knew it!” That’s exactly right. Which is hilarious. And when the character who played the chief engineer comes through some sort of liquid time warp drive thing and says, “Well, that was a hell of a thing.” I just thought that was priceless. The complete acceptance of something so wildly different and just being like, “Ah, okay, fine, next.” I just thought it was hilarious and fun to watch. I’d be happy to watch it again right now.
You mentioned the recent movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock, and I assume you’ve seen the satirical article “Chris Hadfield Ejected from Movie Theater for Loudly Heckling Gravity.”
I found that very funny. Actually, the guy who wrote it tweeted me the satire he wrote. He was happy that I liked it. What’s funny was Australian media picked it up as truth, and they actually started sending it through their normal media. They didn’t spend any effort corroborating sources or even thinking, and they picked it up as truth. But I thought it was pretty funny and good for the Beaverton to manage to confuse people that they might think that was real. I thought it was cute.
He quotes you as saying “Oh yeah, because that’s what hypoxia as caused by rapid cabin decompression looks like, you idiots!” Is that the sort of thing you might say?
Uh, no. No, I don’t spend a lot of my worry critiquing Hollywood for their technical accuracy. I wouldn’t want to sit next to a policemen during a presidential defense movie or Air Force One or anything. Any doctor movie. I like to be able to watch House or E.R. and not be troubled by the scientific inaccuracy. It’s supposed to be entertainment. Sandra Bullock describes Gravity as an amusement park ride. It’s supposed to be an amusement park ride for the people who watch it, and that’s exactly what it is. I love amusement park rides, and Gravity is the same way. It’s not supposed to be a documentary or an astronaut training film. It’s an amusement park ride, and it’s a good one.
I agree; it is. But you were on Conan recently, and you were criticizing the lack of adult diapers in the movie.
You should see what it’s actually like to do a spacewalk. Imagine if you were going to the gym, and you knew that you would be lifting weights steady, without a break, for seven hours, and you’d be doing it inside a rubber suit so that you couldn’t go to the bathroom, and then at the very end of it, you’re going to peel that rubber suit off your body. Imagine how it would look, like you’d worn a wetsuit for the whole time. Imagine what you would look like. You’d look soaking wet. Your hair would be matted down. You’d be wearing a diaper. You’d just look awful. No one wants to see Sandra come out wearing a full diaper and all filthy in the liquid cooling ventilation garment. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to watch.
Did you see the movie The Europa Report?
I have not. I’ve actually been pretty busy since I landed. Since I’ve landed from space, I’ve seen a total of one movie and that was Gravity, and that’s because I was invited to the North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. But I’ve been on the road every day for months, so no. I’m looking forward to seeing movies and relaxing. It just hasn’t happened yet.
The other recent movie I was curious about was Ender’s Game because they have this sort of zero-gravity laser tag game that they play.
I heard about it. I was actually with Harrison Ford in one of the green rooms and he was there because of Ender’s Game, so I knew it existed, but I haven’t read it, nor have I seen it yet, but he was there talking about it. Unfortunately, the closest I’ve come to seeing Ender’s Game is to sit and talk with Harrison Ford for twenty minutes.
I’ve always sort of wondered what it would be like to have a gunfight or do martial arts in zero gravity. Do you have any thoughts on what that would be like—trying to fight someone in zero gravity?
I remember once when my kids first started scuba diving and they were about fourteen, thirteen, and twelve, I think. They got all their scuba qualifications and then we went scuba diving for their open water stuff down in the Bahamas. I remember going down under the water, and my daughter—who was the youngest—was my buddy, and then I made the two boys buddies, and I watched them as sort of a bemused and concerned Dad.
Of course, like young teenage boys do, they spent most of the time punching each other. But I watched them underwater scuba diving punching each other thinking, “Oh, that’s fine.” Because you can’t punch each other very hard when you’re underwater, and it’s kind of clumsy, and because of the drag of the water it’s pretty tiring.
I think it would be similarly problematic [in zero gravity]. Or at least you would have to invent whole new techniques to fight somebody where you didn’t have gravity. We rely on leverage to get a good punch—you rely on position. If someone really had time and was good at martial arts or even a ballet dancer—or someone who’s really lithe and graceful with the ways that they move—I think they would love weightlessness. They could really learn how to use it to be graceful and to a three-dimensional advantage. But for most of us, it would make you like my teenage sons punching each other off the reef of the Bahamas.
I just had a couple more movies I was going to mention. Maybe I’ll just throw these movies at you, and you can just say whether you saw them and maybe like a one-sentence reaction. Armageddon?
I saw Armageddon. Great soundtrack.
I didn’t see Red Planet.
Mission to Mars.
I saw Mission to Mars. Nice monsters.
The Astronaut’s Wife.
I did not see The Astronaut’s Wife.
I saw Contact. Jodie Foster plays an intense, worried person better than just about anyone, and she did a great job in that. Kind of a fun, big machine to watch that they built, but beyond that, not much.
Getting into your book a little bit.
Not Close Encounters? I thought Close Encounters was a great one.
Oh, all right.
I really enjoyed Close Encounters because, sort of like 2001, they let you draw a lot of the conclusions yourself. They didn’t overdo it. They didn’t turn it into a western right away. They let you think for a while. It was sort of a Hitchcock or some sort of long, brooding buildup to what was going to happen based on a lot of secondary or tertiary clues. I enjoyed that. I thought it was very cleverly put together, and it’s a movie, even though it’s dated now, but it’s still iconic and I enjoy that movie.
I was trying to limit it to just astronaut movies.
Cowboys and Aliens, yeah.
Actually, just on the subject of aliens, do you have any overall thoughts about life elsewhere in the universe?
Personally, just because of the statistics, I’m convinced we’re not alone in the universe. The bigger the telescopes we build, with the Hubble telescope perhaps being the best ever, the more stars we discover, the more galaxies we discover, and with our latest telescopes, the more planets we discover. We’re basically proving that every single star has planets. As far as the human imagination can reach, there are essentially an unlimited number of planets. Unlimited. And to think that ours is the only planet that developed life in an unlimited universe of time and space and opportunity, to me, is just a self-centered arrogance. That we’re so special.
I think there’s probably life somewhere else. To think that some intelligent derivation of that life has travelled all the way across the universe and come to the Earth and is sneaking around, finding us fascinating, and only revealing themselves to people that believe in it—and that’s always in the shape that we expect it to be, a flying saucer or a cigar shaped thing—to me, that’s also just a self-important arrogance. I think the universe houses life besides our own, but I think it’s going to be up to us to prove it and find it.
That’s why we’re looking around on Mars. That’s what Curiosity has shown us, great indicators of at least the potential for life on Mars. When it discovered that there’s so much water trapped in the topsoil of Mars, the opportunity is there. I think that life probably does exist somewhere else. Maybe we can answer that conclusively just by digging down into the rock of Mars eventually and finding whether there’s primitive life [there].
Speaking of Mars and Arthur C. Clarke, I saw that the Canadian Space Agency has something called the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse. Do you know anything about that?
Of course. On a planet with low atmospheric pressure but still enough sun power, like Mars, if we’re going to be able to grow anything on Mars—and when we go there, it will obviously make sense to grow things there, not just to transport food all the way from Earth—we’re going to have to learn how to grow things in a place like Mars, so it would obviously be in some sort of pressurized greenhouse that takes advantage of natural light as well as manmade light. The Canadian Space Agency tried to set up an early analogue of that to understand how to operate one of those remotely, how to monitor the health of plants from thousands of miles away. And at the research station that several of the research agencies co-developed up on Devon Island, up on the Haughton Crater—which is an ancient asteroid or meteor crater up in the Canadian arctic on the world’s largest uninhabited island—on Devon Island they built a research greenhouse up there. It was really interesting. I was up there and did some training and work up there and was inside that greenhouse.
As with anything, you really want to choose names to honor the pioneers, and the visionaries, and the inspirers of the past, and so I thought that was a really good name for it.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about going to Mars, even going to Mars on one-way trips. What do you think are the prospects, in our lifetime, of a manned Mars mission?
I don’t think we will go to Mars until we invent different engines. It’s a nice idea, and it’s one that will inevitably happen, but I just don’t think we’re technologically advanced enough to do it yet. With chemical rockets—which are really the best that we have right now that we can count on—it takes so long to get to Mars that it becomes self-defeating. Plus, how do you actually stop and land in an atmosphere that’s too thin to support a parachute, but way too thick to let you just come in fast and let you slow down like you would on the moon? It’s a very complex matrix of problems to solve.
It’s sort of like . . . to me, I look for a parallel example: It’s like saying in 1912, “Hey, I want to fly to Australia. We’ve got airplanes. Let’s go. Why don’t we fly to Australia?” And it’s like, “Well, we will, but it’s 1912. We can’t yet. We can barely fly across the English Channel. We can’t fly to Australia. It’s too far.” Right now, if we were willing to kill people all the time, then we could jump right into it and start learning the lessons at the cost of a loss of life, but it’s expensive and nobody is willing to do it like we’ve explored a lot of the other places on the Earth. Our early explorers were expected to die regularly, it was just a normal part of exploration, but in space flight we don’t expect people to die regularly, so it’s a little different.
It’s not about us not going. Inevitably, of course we’ll go. We’re only limited by technology. But I think it’s premature right now. I think technology is far too limited for us to credibly mount an expedition to Mars unless we absolutely had to. And the world isn’t threatened nearly seriously enough to put us into that boat.
Actually, speaking of that, on Twitter you posted, “The dinosaurs went extinct because they didn’t have a space program.” Did Larry Niven first say this?
Yeah, I’d heard that quote attributed to various different people, but I understand that Larry Niven first said it. I was just wondering if anybody had heard any different or if he got the idea from someone else, but of course there’s lots of geologic evidence to show how the Earth has been bombarded by asteroids in the past, and the Manicouagan crater is one of the most visible scars on Earth, but there are a lot of others that the majority of them are buried by weathering and by continental drift. The Earth hides its past well. Whereas the Moon is just an agonized portrait of horrific acne of four and a half billion years of bombardment from the universe. So you can see just how vulnerable we are to being hit by things that are coming through space, and as we build better detectors we find more and more asteroids that are on the scale of at least serious death and destruction on Earth, if not complete civilization killers that exist out there, which have a given probability of hitting the world.
So all of the people that are mounting efforts . . . the first stage is to detect. We have to be able to try and detect one coming and catalogue the number of asteroids that cross our orbit. I think we need as many of those sensors as possible as the first step.
Then the next step, of course, is what do you do about it? Whether you try and deflect it, or whether you try and vaporize it, or break it into pieces, or you just evacuate that part of the world. What is the right answer? And who is the governing body that is going to make that decision?
So the reason that I chose that quote by Larry Niven is that it so eloquently states the bottom line of it, which is the dinosaurs were here for a long time and their entire species, to a large degree, apart from the small remnants, was obliterated by one day’s events—one big rock coming from the universe. And the universe is full of rocks—and another one is going to hit the world again at some point—and it would behoove us as a species, if we really want to survive, to try and predict it and try and do something about it in advance. Because if we don’t do anything, then we will just go the way of the dinosaurs.
Do you read Larry Niven or other more recent science fiction authors?
No, I’ve read very little of Larry Niven. I don’t read very much right now at all. People don’t know how busy astronauts are. They really don’t. Some people ask me, “Oh, what do you do in between spaceflights?” Which just makes me laugh. It is such a fanatically busy life of study and preparation and taking care of each other while we’re all flying in space. It’s an all-engrossing and demanding job, the majority of which you are on the road somewhere else.
So, no. I would love to do more reading, but the circumstances of my life unfortunately have kept me from reading all the things that I would like to.
Speaking of how demanding it is being an astronaut, I read in your book that the internet on the International Space Station, you describe it as being “dial-up slow.” Just the thought of having slow internet for five months is almost too horrible to contemplate.
We have email onboard, but it’s slow enough that we just do email syncs. We synchronize our email a certain number of times per day and maybe once a day on the weekend. So it’s like a lot of the world where you have very limited capability, and we upgraded the connectivity while I was on the station. We increased it by about a hundredfold in speed which gave us great ability to uplink and downlink videos so that I could make all of those educational videos and fun videos and get them down to the ground for people to release. But it almost got to the point where you could stream up to the space station but not quite. So it’s improving.
I can barely get Comcast to fix my internet—and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I live on Earth, so you would think that that wouldn’t be that much of a problem.
The way that we linked up our internet onboard is pretty complex, but it eventually got linked down through Houston. Eventually, that long train of connections through relay satellites out in the geostationary orbit and the big ground arrays that bring information back, they all eventually went and connected to a desktop that was sitting at the Johnson Space Center that then tied us into the internet. That one is still [reliant] on Comcast to keep us connected.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention for your YouTube videos, particularly your performance of David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity.” What have been some of the biggest reactions to that that you’ve gotten?
The biggest reaction is Bowie himself who said it was the best cover of that song ever done, which is pretty high praise from the artist himself. My son made that video. I recorded the music and the singing, and then a musician named Emm Gryner, a super recording artist, she did the piano part, and Joe Corcoran did the rest of the instrumentals. But it was really my son. He edited the video, he put it all together, it was all his idea, and he posted it to the internet. That one place where my son Evan posted it, almost twenty million people have seen it, but it’s been reposted many other places, and it’s been rebroadcast on regular media such that hundreds of millions of people around the world have seen that video, and I hear echoes of it everywhere all the time.
It’s kind of funny for people to say, “Hey, I saw your video,” like in my life I’ve made only one video, but that’s the level of ubiquitous impact that it had. What’s interesting about it, going back to the central core of the conversation, is why is it an interesting video? And I think it’s because, much like science fiction in the late sixties with Star Trek and 2001, they were overlaid at the same time by the reality of the race to the moon, and I think that video, which took an iconic fantasy/science fiction kind of view of space travel and very brilliantly told a little story and created a sense of emotion, somehow that became real when I had a chance to sing it and record it onboard the space station.
It interweaves science fiction and science fact, and all sorts of people have sent me pictures of their kids or someone just hypnotically watching that over and over again and trying to square inside their head how could this be? The normality of it and the juxtaposition of it. I think the reason that hundreds of millions of people have seen it is just that: That it links science fiction and fantasy with reality. That we have built something, the world has built a place where science fiction and fantasy become real, and that’s what the space station is. I was delighted that my son talked me into it because the impact and the thought provocation that’s gone along with the impact has been so huge.
Your book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, contains a lot of valuable life lessons that you’ve learned as an astronaut and a pilot that can be applied to everyday life. I was wondering, is one of those lessons that you should always check your cockpit for dangerous animals before you take off?
[Laughter] I do now. That was a real surprise the day I found a live snake in the cockpit with me while flying an airplane. What’s funny is, a common expression amongst fighter pilots when you’re super busy in the cockpit—because most fighter airplanes have one seat, and you have to do everything by yourself, and so it can get extremely busy, especially when you’re doing a dogfight or something—the common expression we would use was “I was killing snakes and putting out fires.” And so to actually deal with a live snake in the cockpit, it was a little bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark or something. Flying an airplane and having to deal with a writhing, very unhappy snake in the cockpit with me was a first and hopefully a last in my experience.
That snake found himself ejected from the airplane.
Yeah, what would you do? Russ Wilson, the firefighter friend of mine that I was with, we both decided, “Let’s get this little window open and send the snake on his final flight, and we’ll go back to the business of flying this airplane.” We were up high—we were at about 10,000 feet—so that snake fell a couple miles and hopefully landed somewhere innocently and not in the front seat of somebody’s convertible driving down the highway.
Another thing in the book that really struck me was you talk about having a psych evaluation before you can go into space, and one of the questions is, “Have you ever thought about killing your mother?” I think it was. It just made me wonder, how useful are those psych evaluations? Do they actually catch anyone?
If you were being evaluated to be an astronaut, and you really wanted to be one, then how would you approach a test like that? If you knew that you were going to do a psychiatric evaluation, what would you do? Would you just take it and hope for the best? Well, I thought, okay, I’m going to do a psych exam. I’m going to call a psychiatrist friend of mine and say, “Hey, how do you do well on these exams? What are they going to ask for? What are they looking for? Is there a pass-fail? Is there a grade? What are they really looking for?” And what she said was, “No, it’s pretty much just to identify people with some really strong psychological problems. It’s not going to be much of a discriminator at all. If you’re not seriously troubled psychologically, if you’re not schizophrenic, or manic, or something, then you’re going to be fine.”
So when I was doing it, I more felt like the answers I was writing weren’t important, but I felt that there must be a television camera watching me fill out these questions and just looking for my incredulous reactions. Because it was 500 questions, I think, or some enormous battery of questions, and a lot of them were nonsensical. You try and write down what you think is the right answer. Like: “When I was a kid, I always answered the doorbell first. Yes or no?” I’m going, “Number one, I don’t remember. There were five of us in the household. I don’t think we even had a doorbell because it was a farmhouse, and also, what would be the right answer? Should I have answered the doorbell first? Should I have not?” I didn’t know. I just treated the whole thing as a big exercise, and I don’t think they have eliminated very many applicants. By the time you get to the stage where they’re giving you the psychiatric test, there’s not too many people who could have gotten all of the other qualifications that would still be very psychologically aberrant.
You recently wrote an article for Wired called “We Should Treat Earth as Kindly as We Treat Spacecraft.” Could you just talk about how that came about?
I was approached by Wired Magazine to write the lead-in article or conversation question article for the December issue that was just edited by Bill Gates, and they basically said, “You can write it about whatever you want.” I thought about some of the issues that had puzzled or intrigued or challenged me while I was in orbit; the beauty of my third spaceflight was the amount of time that I had, the better part of half a year off the planet, to look at it and think about it and puzzle over some of the problems and potential solutions.
When I was writing that article, I took myself through that same thought process of how looking at the world that way starts to make you think, and then it starts to help you boil down to the key problems to the real things that are facing us, and how we might get together and solve them—a viewpoint that isn’t driven just by local concerns, but one that’s given by global concerns.
To me, it’s all about power generation and the pollution that it causes. How are we going to generate power so that it decreases the scarcity of resources and decreases the deleterious effects on the atmosphere?
I tried to go through that long process, and if you look at a spaceship, it’s just a microcosm of the Earth, or the Earth is just the exaggeration of a spaceship. You have crew, you have limited resources, you have a habitable zone, you have a system that maintains that habitable zone, and you are still subject to external forces that can cause havoc at any time.
I was really pleased with how the article came out. It helped me go through the whole thought process, and all sorts of people commented and said that they really enjoyed the thoughts that went into that article. Even Bill Gates himself wrote an unbidden note that he found it very thought-provoking and insightful, so I was really pleased to have a chance to write that.
I saw that you just took a new position as adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo.
Yeah, I’m an adjunct professor. I went to the University of Waterloo for post-graduate work in mechanical engineering. It’s a great school. It’s one of the top academic universities—technical, engineering, cutting-edge kind of challenging universities. One of the hardest universities to get into in all of Canada. A lot of great ideas come out of there.
The Perimeter Institute, with all of the physics research going on, is right there in that same town. And COM DEV, one of the leading aerospace companies in the country, is right there too. It’s a really fertile area.
When they asked me to come and be an adjunct professor, I had to go and look up what adjunct meant. It means part-time, or guest, or whatever time allows, and things are pretty busy right now, so I think primarily my role will be largely as a guest lecturer or occasional lecturer, but I think it’s an investment both on my part and on the university’s part for years to come. I’m really looking forward to building my relationship and my time at the school, because of all the people that have taught me over the last fifty years, all these different things, and the levels of experience and technical skill that I’ve gained as a result, and hopefully, therefore, some of the useful lessons and teaching opportunities that will help the students going through there, so that they not only come out of university with good academic knowledge, but with as much practical insight and potentially the ability to avoid making mistakes as I did. I’m really looking forward to it.
What else is keeping you busy these days? You’re probably speaking, and are you writing anything else? What else are you up to?
The book tour. [The book is] a New York Times bestseller, and it’s the number one bestselling book in Canada; it’s selling extremely well in the UK and Ireland and Australia, and it’s being translated into ten different languages in other countries. So the book tour is keeping me extremely busy, which is great. I’m really pleased that people are enjoying the book. I’ve been travelling a lot just on the book tour, and meeting folks, and signing books.
There is, as you say, lots of public speaking, a great demand for me to come and speak, and so I do that on a regular basis, and I’m consulting a little bit to the aerospace industry as well, which I think is a good thing to develop—to try and not just talk to academia, but also talk to government and industry about the practicalities of what I’ve learned over the last quarter-century.
Eventually, hopefully, I’ll take a day off, which would be welcome as well. But it’s busy. I was with the government thirty-five years, and I just retired, so the transition is important. I was outside of Canada for twenty-six years, in the US and Russia, so I’m getting settled back, and just trying to pick my battles now and decide where I want to apply my efforts full-time, but I’m not in a big hurry to commit to anything quite yet.
We appreciate that you’re busy, and we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today, Chris.
Thanks. It was really lovely to have a chance to talk with you as well, and thanks for having done all the research. You did vast research in getting ready to talk to me here, and it made it a lot more interesting for me as well, so thanks very much. It was a real pleasure to talk with you.
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