One-on-one with Chris Hadfield

Photo by Travis Fortnum

Chris Hadfield at Durham College.

Chris Hadfield has been in the spotlight in Canada for several years.

Born and raised in Sarnia, Hadfield has since lived in Texas, Russia and outer space.

Hadfield is the first Canadian to have walked in space, with almost 15 hours spent doing so. His resume also lists experience as a downhill ski racer, fighter pilot and musician.

From growing up a Leafs fan to hosting speaking engagements around the world, what makes him tick?

You’ve accomplished enough for anyone to be proud of, what quality do you think it is inside you that’s allowed you to reach this level of accomplishment?

I have an intense curiosity about how things work. And a lot of patience. Recognizing that most of the worthwhile things in life take a lot of time. Also, kind of a realism. Nothing’s going to happen by magic, mostly it’s the result of setting your sights on something and trying to figure out a way to make that happen, and then diligently work at it because it’s really important to you. It’s something you really want to know or understand or you’re dissatisfied with. I think it’s that combination of things that has kind of informed my whole life.

I think that realism is something a lot of post-secondary students strive for. What advice would you offer to students who are struggling with reaching for their goals or struggling with ambition?

Well there’s nothing magic about post-secondary. I mean, I think it’s true whether you’re your four or 94, and the real question is what are you trying to accomplish in life? What gives you a sense of satisfaction? What are you proud of? Or what irritates you, what are you not satisfied with? In the external world or in your own life? Which is another way of saying what do you want to change about yourself or about the world around you? Because people ask you all the time, I think they ask you the wrong question. They say “what do you want to be when you grow up? What job do you want to have?” but a job is sort of a symptom of what you’re doing in life, it’s not really the end game. So, I think if you are at the post-secondary stage of life, if you’re one of the students here at UOIT or Durham, part of it is “what could I maybe accomplish in life? If everything went great, what could I accomplish? What don’t I know how to do yet in order to be able to accomplish that?” You could say I want to be able to set up that sound system down there or be able to run this camera or build one of these watches or do heart surgery or make shoes, it doesn’t matter. “What is it that I want to do, and what part of that don’t I know how to do yet?” And then, start changing who you are. And that’s where education comes in: “I don’t know how to do this yet, so therefore I need to learn how.” And suddenly you start seeing education in a whole different way, I think, and that is: Education is just giving myself the necessary abilities to do the things that are important to me. And constantly re-evaluate. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s not like suddenly you finish school and you’re no longer learning or you’re no longer challenged. You should be a curious, dissatisfied student your whole life.

Travis Fortnum (left) sat down with Chris Hadfield before the astronaut took the stage at DC/UOIT.
Travis Fortnum (left) sat down with Chris Hadfield before the astronaut took the stage at DC/UOIT.

You mentioned recently that retirement is often thought of as “the end of usefulness”, and that it shouldn’t be. That it should be “what comes next”.

Yeah. Retirement is just where you stop doing one thing and start doing something else. I retired from kindergarten. I retired from elementary school, I no longer go to elementary school but it was a thing I did for several years. It doesn’t mean when I finish that, I’m suddenly not doing anything anymore. I retired from being a downhill ski racer, I retired from being a fighter pilot but all that does is – it’s given me a certain set of experiences and skills that have allowed me to do the next things I’m going to do. I have no desire to do nothing, I want to do things. I think it’s interesting.

With all those experiences and your experiences in space, what’s it like to be able to share that with children?

Everybody makes a deliberate or inadvertent decision everyday as to what you’re going to share. Some of the stuff you keep completely to yourself, some of it you share. Who you share with used to be hard. It’s pretty hard to share – before the invention of the telephone, you could share with the people that were within earshot or you could write someone a letter and that was it. Now with television and telephone and radio and internet and social media, gosh, you can have a thought and hit send and a billion people have access to what you thought today. So the ability to share has exploded and we’re just trying to figure out as a species what to do with that, but it’s immensely powerful, the sharing of knowledge and thought. If you share a thought with a person who’s 105 it’s good, it’s interesting, but their impact on the world is by definition going to be short. If you share it with an eight-year-old, they might have another 97 years to go. So, it can have an enormous impact. So I think when you’re choosing to share you should think about – what is about this experience that I’ve had that may be of interest to somebody else? And how can I express it that they then change their behaviour? So that they’ve modified who they are based on what I’m sharing. That’s kind of the purpose of communication. If all you’re doing is making noise then you’re not really communicating, you’re just amplifying nothing. But if you’re actually trying to share your experience with a purpose in mind, then I think you should try to do it with everybody, but specifically with younger people because they have a lot more choices still to make in life.

Yeah, and as I kid I know I was fascinated with outer space, as you were with the Apollo 11 landing. What have the reactions been like from them hearing about what it’s really like in space and being able to see pictures and videos?

I was an astronaut for 21 years. I flew in space three times. I’ve spoken in… I don’t know how many schools. Many, many hundreds of schools. I’ve written things, I’m in textbooks, I’ve written three books, I do a Skype link with schools for Q&A on a regular basis called On the Launchpad. All because it has a really positive, significant impact. You can’t make a decision about something if you don’t know it exists. First, you have to know something exists, and then you have to sort of care about it a little bit. Once you know something exists and you care about it, then suddenly it starts to enter into your decision-making. Part of my role is to let people know about some things that exist and then give them enough information so that maybe they start to care about it. Like the Arctic, like opportunity in life, like the rest of the universe, like things that might happen within your own sphere of experience. And so, it’s wonderful to see the impact of that, and I have kids that approached me in grade school who are now finished their PhD. Jeremy Hansen, one of Canada’s astronauts came to me as a teenager and said, “I’m a high school student how do I become an astronaut.” That’s happened many times. I think it’s delightful. It’s kind of a rippling, outward impact of my own particular decision making that then hopefully has a positive influence on not just the individual, but society at large.

And it does seem to have a positive impact.

I think so too, it’s really motivating for me.


You mentioned how frequently you do speaking engagements. How many times a year would you say you do them like the one here on campus?

I’ve been doing it for 25 years, so countless. If you’ve got some spare time, what are you going to do? Share. Write a book. Do something online, don’t just watch cat videos. Do something worthwhile. I do it all the time. We have thousands of requests all the time, so we just try to pick and choose and do things that are worthwhile. An audience like [UOIT and Durham] is terrific. A bunch of folks who are at this stage of self-determined education in their own life. Making choices. It’s a lovely group of people to speak with.

Coming home in 2013, your time in space had affected your health. Are you still feeling those affects?

Well, whose health is 100 per cent? There are significant short-term and long-term impacts on your body that are driven by being weightless. Your balance system, your blood pressure regulation system, the demands on your cardiovascular system, a little bit of your immune response and then of course the amount of exercise you get. Just sitting here you and I are fighting gravity. People don’t think about it, but your head weighs a bunch and every time you move it you’re exercising the muscles of your neck fighting gravity. If you’re weightless, your heart never has to lift blood. It just has to push it through the veins, so your heart gets smaller, your muscles weaken, and the biggest impact is your skeleton dissolves. So you get osteoporosis. You can combat a couple of those with heavy exercise on board, so we do that. You can’t really exercise the big bones in your body or at least put a load on them that would help them maintain their original density. So to answer your question: The short-term stuff, the balance and all those, those all come back pretty quick. Within about four months my cardiovascular felt normal, I could go for a run, but it took about a year and a half to get my skeleton back to the original average density. The proportion between the softer inner trabecular bone and the outer hard calcified bone, the proportion between the two changes. Sort of like old man bones, I got old man hips. A little bit more calcified, a little less trabecular. But it was worth it. So yeah, I’m basically back to where I would have been if I hadn’t flown in space. Although I’ve had a higher radiation dosage, but by rule no more than anyone that works in an industry where that’s regulated. You can’t have more than a three per cent increased risk of getting cancer as a result of the work that you do for the government.

Chris Hadfield, who has preformed the Nation Anthem at a Leafs game, took part in a puck drop live from the ISS
Chris Hadfield, who has preformed the Nation Anthem at a Leafs game, took part in a puck drop live from the ISS

You’re not shy about being a Leafs fan. What do you think about how they’re doing so far this season?

My great-grandfather was a trainer for the Leafs in the late 30s, just before the war. They hired him to be the physical trainer for the Leafs and then he raised my dad, so how could I not be a Leafs fan? It’s in my blood. Plus, I’m from southern Ontario so I’m not going to be a fan of Vancouver why would I? It just doesn’t make sense. Fan comes from fanatic, I’m not fanatic. But I lived outside of Canada for 26 years, I think that helps you put it in perspective as well. Hockey is a great game and the skillsets that people like Auston Matthews, the ability that they develop is just phenomenal. It’s wonderful to watch. Some games you win, some games you lose no matter what team you’re on. Sure, I’d love it if the Leafs were the best group of players in the world, but even if they are this year they won’t be next year. It’s just how it goes. For me, I love watching the excellence that it demands and the individual skillset that comes from it. And then the teamwork that builds. I love seeing the real flashes of brilliance and I like the way that the Leafs are put together this year. They’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of promise on the team. So yeah, I think it’s a real fun year to watch. They’re a fun team to watch right now, and some years people have had less fun watching them. The beauty of being away 26 years is I think you appreciate how much fun it is to watch every single game. Living in south Texas or Russia you don’t get to see much of the Leafs play.

The idea of a bucket list is thrown around a lot. For many people, I’m sure going into space would be on their bucket list but for many it seems impossible. With that already in your bucket, so to speak, what adventure would you like to add next?

Bucket list, that term is fairly new. It’s one generation old and I don’t like it. It depends I guess how you view it. Maybe I’m wrong, I think the common idea of a bucket list is: You are carrying around a bucket with stuff in it that someday you hope to do and you look at it and go “these are the things that I value, and I haven’t done them yet.” To me, that’s not a bucket that’s a millstone. That’s like Ebenezer Scrooge dragging a chain being him, you go “man a whole year went by and I didn’t do one thing that I actually value.” Also, I would question what do you put on your bucket list? If your bucket list is bungee jumping, OK, but that’s so experiential. It requires so little actual skill, is that really what you’re valuing in your own life? Maybe you want to taste chateaubriand at the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or drink wine at Maxim’s in Paris, OK fine. But I think instead, you should have long term goals for what you’d like to accomplish in life, but try and be a lot less hard on yourself as to what’s in your bucket. Try and fill up your bucket every single day. Don’t drag around judgment on yourself for failure all the time. No one cares what’s in your bucket except you, why not say every single morning “these are some of the things I might get done today” and at bedtime go “man I did some cool stuff today, my bucket is full today” But I think some people are just too hard on themselves, so I really don’t have a bucket list. I have a list of things that I try and challenge myself with but I don’t evaluate myself based on bragging rights. I think that’s what a lot of bucket lists end up being. It just doesn’t seem to me to be a good regulatory value system to impose on yourself.

Speaking of experiences and setting goals for yourself, in 2013 again you said you had no political aspirations, do you stand by that?

Yeah, I don’t want to go into politics. We need politicians, we need all sorts of leadership but there are a lot of ways to be a positive influence on Canadian society without going into elected politics. What I tell people is, I’ve already served 35 years with the federal government. I’ve got a big platform to stand on and I think that the influence I have is already useful and positive, so I’m not feeling unfulfilled or like I’m not doing good things.

Through all the interviews I’ve seen of yours, you have this ability to take these unique experiences and put them into a context that is easy to understand.

Yeah, the other thing I learned a long time ago is none of us have the same experience. Therefore, if you realize that every single person you talk to has done stuff you haven’t done and knows things that you don’t know and has skill sets that you don’t have, that makes for conversation to be much more interesting. How do you get that person to tell you about the stuff that they know that you don’t? What are they being heroic about? Because everyone is brave. Everybody is fighting something, everybody’s doing stuff. We don’t necessarily give ourselves credit for it. You don’t have to be an astronaut in order to have something worth sharing. People need to recognize that


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Travis Fortnum is a second-year journalism student. He has a love for politics and is passionate about covering campus news, community events, and sports. Aside from the Chronicle, his stories have been featured in the Oshawa This Week, Brooklin Town Crier, Whitby Snap'd and on