Chris Hadfield was already a veteran astronaut by the time he became a global internet phenomenon. He’d flown a space shuttle to the Russian space station Mir in 1995 and had done his first stint aboard the International Space Station in 2001. But it was his time aboard the latter, from December 2012 to May 2013, that made the astronaut a full-fledged star.
His photos of Earth and accompanying observations, which he posted to Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, inspired legions of followers. Then the guitar-playing astronaut released a captivating music video in which he sang David Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating in zero gravity – a performance viewed more than 25 million times.
Hadfield has since retired from the Canadian Space Agency and is now teaching, writing and speaking about his experiences. We recently caught up with him to ask about his travels back on Earth.
You’ve seen such amazing views of Earth from space. Have aeroplane window seats lost their appeal?
[Laughs.] I always prefer window seats, partly because I’m intimately familiar with the whole world and it’s lovely to see how it looks today. People always want to come up and talk to me, but being over by a window also gives me slightly more privacy.
When did you get the travel bug?
I was really lucky because my dad was an airline pilot, and in the 1960s and ‘70s the family travel privileges were much more permissive. So as kids, we travelled quite a bit, all around North America, down to the Caribbean; skiing in Switzerland and Austria. Travel became a normal adventure, and I think it set the bug for the rest of my life. Since then, I guess I’ve been to 60 or 70 countries. And it’s been contagious. All my kids have been to 60-plus countries, and my wife as well. For us, it’s an important part of how to live right now: to see as much of the world as possible, draw your own conclusions and try to understand the world through your own particular filter.
What kind of travelling do you do these days?
I travel about five days a week, for a variety of reasons. I’m a university professor in a different town than I live in, so I go back and forth. My first book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, is in 20 languages, so I’ve done speaking tours across the US, Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia. And I’ve done tours for the second book, You Are Here. I’m also on the Canadian Space Advisory Board, helping our government with space policy, so there’s a lot of travel with that. And then my daughter is graduating with her PhD in Dublin this weekend so we’ll be going over, and I have a son in China, so we travel quite a lot for family reasons. And that’s not to mention the 2,600 orbits of the world that I did onboard space ships.
My head is spinning.
Yeah, it’s busy.
Any travel habits you’ve developed to make the most of your time on the road?
The key when travelling as much as I do is to not to treat travel as anything different. I seek to make it as non-interruptive as possible, so I can go from productive environment to productive environment as quickly and efficiently as possible. If I can just get a power source and wireless, it’s as if I’m back in my office.
I have patterns for long [haul] travel. I’ve crossed the Atlantic more times than most people, with a lot of trips from Houston to Russia and back in my 21 years as an astronaut. So I tend to pack late and pack light, and then eat light as well. I would rather show up at the other end hungry so I have the greatest chance to get my body onto the digestive cycle of the new place. Nobody at home would have a big dinner and wake up at 1:30 am and have another big dinner. It delays your sleep adaptation and your digestive adaptation, which are linked. And I try to stay triply hydrated, because planes are dehydrating.
Has seeing Earth from space changed the way you view the planet when you travel?
Yeah, I think it annoys my wife. When we’re driving I know what’s around the next corner, even though we’ve never been there before. It’s like, “You’re going to see this big cove up there, or the surf really pours in here”. It is, actually, déjà vu. I’ve already seen so much of the world, if not the whole thing, many times. It’s as if you’ve done your homework everywhere you go and you know the lay of the land and where the lakes are and where the nearest town is and how it’s laid out. Travelling becomes a much richer experience.
Did you see places from space that you made sure to visit when you returned to Earth – or are there places you still want to see?
Oh, absolutely. The list is long. There are places that are alluring because they’re beautiful: the South Sea islands, Bora Bora, Fiji and all along the Great Barrier Reef. All of the islands in that part of the world. I haven’t seen most of them yet and would love to.
I have not seen New Zealand on the ground, but to see it from space – the huge volcano on the southern tip of the North Island, and the richness of the fjords and nature in the south, and the wine country at the north end of the South Island – just kind of coalescing every time I went by. That was really interesting to look at.
I haven’t been to the Channel Islands [off the southern California coast] or the Isle of Man [off the coast of England], either. There’s a distinct feel to islands. They develop their own flora, fauna and personality.
And in Africa, I’ve only been to Egypt and South Africa. The continent is so vast – from 30 north to 30 south – I’ve seen it all but I’ve never been there on the ground.
Has your time in space affected your sense of wanderlust?
It’s not so much my wanderlust that’s changed, it’s more a respect for the absolute commonality of the human experience. Yes, there’s a strong local influence – our own history and culture and sets of laws – but when you go around the world every 92 minutes, the sameness overwhelms the differences. The repeated pattern of human habitation. How we set up cities. How that pattern looks whether it’s a city in Alberta or Africa or Australia. You’re passing over Canada and in 20 minutes you’re over Africa. You see the commonalities much more strongly than you see the differences.
I think that is actually the reality of the world – the shared common nature of our experience. We tend to exaggerate our differences and become extremely used to our own set of biases. But travel teaches you the shared nature of being human. And it’s extremely important, because so much of our bad decision-making – at personal, business, national and planetary levels – is driven by myopia and a lack of understanding of anything beyond our normal confines. The more people can see of the world, the better their decision-making will be.
It appears that more people will be seeing the world from space. What are your thoughts on developments in space tourism? Is this a good thing?
Oh it’s a good thing. Air travel was impossible 100 years ago. You could maybe get a ride in an aeroplane but your odds of death were very high. Now, air travel is so commonplace that after a 12-hour flight, the only thing you’re likely to tell somebody is what you ate or what movie you watched.
We’re in the infancy of space travel. We just haven’t come up with all the necessary inventions yet. But what Richard Branson is doing, what Elon Musk is doing, what Jeff Bezos is doing, what Boeing is doing – these are the early foundations. None of them has it right. But we’ll get there eventually. I’m just pleased to have been one of the early enablers, one of the people who got to see it early on with my own eyes and then to have done my absolute best to try to share that experience with as many people as possible.
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