Chris Hadfield: The Nexus interview
March 15, 2017 by Adam Marsh, student editor
What more can a person accomplish after orbiting Earth? Chris Hadfield has the answer to that, and many other questions, in this, our Q&A with the first Canadian to man the International Space Station. He’s also the first Canadian to complete a work of art from space, with his 2015 album Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can. He’s also written three books and is playing in town with the Victoria Symphony at an event where he’ll share his ideas and experiences through a unique artistic lens; Hadfield will be in Victoria performing with the symphony on March 24 at 8 pm and March 25 at 2 pm and 8 pm at the Royal Theatre.
Hadfield’s experiences have taught him how to lend much of what he knows to the world for the taking. But talking to him felt like any other conversation I had that day… until he would throw something out there really profound and unique about the human condition, or human progression, or his incredibly one-of-a-kind experiences, and up, up, up we’d go.
So, strap in and dive into this conversation between a Camosun student and the Rocket Man.
Hadfield: How are things on the west coast? Did you get any snow?
Nexus: Yeah, we did; I took the four-wheel-drive truck into work today.
That’s unusual. Toronto has none. It’s been warm here. We haven’t had snow on the ground in weeks; it looks like late April.
Really? Wow. Interesting how things are reversed.
If you want weather to stay the same, you’re on the wrong planet.
That’s a good segueway into talking to you. Tell me about your role in the Victoria Symphony, and what audience members might expect at the event.
I’ve had a chance to play with several symphonies in the United States and Canada. It’s a wonderful way to share stories and ideas. What we’re planning for the three concerts with the Victoria Symphony is music, but also images. I’ll talk about various ideas, [and there will be] a chance to interact with the audience. It makes for a really unusual and interesting evening that I very much enjoy personally, and I see a lot of reflected pleasure in the audiences.
What kinds of images are going to be relayed on the screen?
If you listen to The Blue Danube, it’s lovely. You can picture it. But you’ve got to think about the composer: what were they looking at when they wrote it? And what was in their mind? So I think about that when I’m putting together a symphony show. Is it just the music, or is it also the ideas behind the music and the reason the music was written? There are a variety of songs about the Earth, about personal experiences, about the history of Canada, but also about space travel itself and where we are in that history. And there’s imagery to support all of those musical ideas, so it’s kind of a tapestry of individual stills, as well as some of the videos that we’ve taken from the spaceship. And I think it just makes the music more poignant and more thought-provoking.”
What’s the most interesting part of playing music without gravity? Do you find that it affected your performance back on Earth?
I think the place is extremely provocative, artistically. To be floating weightless is an entirely different human experience from the rest of your life. And to go around the world every 92 minutes, to see every place that exists, and to see the history… In a glance, you can see the entire length of the Nile. So you think about ancient Egypt and the pyramids, right through to the search for the source of Nile, and Livingstone and all of the explorers. And then, if you turn your attention the other direction, you are immersed in the universe. So it’s an extremely thought-provoking place to create any sort of art, and as musician, in my case, to be able to create music up there is one way to try and explain it to yourself, but then to try and hopefully capture a sense of it for other people also. Then there’s the straight mechanics of music. It’s a noisy place. It’s a complicated place to play an instrument that’s designed for gravity. Some instruments would be impossible to play up there, like a steel guitar, where you need gravity to help you. But then you can, of course, evolve instruments. Our art and our technology move with us and they evolve depending on where we are. And none of that has changed as soon as you’re aboard a spaceship.
So what can you say about the effect on your psyche in terms of being in space? I know in 2012 you went up for a longer period of time. What was that like for you?
It’s intriguing to see that a lot of artists have used space flight as a metaphor for loneliness. If you listen to “Rocket Man” by Elton John, it’s not about space flight at all. It’s about being a gay man in a very public persona in the 1970s. Even [David] Bowie’s original “Space Oddity” was all about loneliness. They somehow think that being an astronaut is lonely. But I’ve never met a lonely farmer. The loneliest people I’ve ever met are the ones who live in the middle of cities. So I don’t think loneliness is a geographical thing, I think it’s a psychological thing. If you go around the entire world in 90 minutes, you see all 7.5 billion people every day, so it’s not lonely at all. It’s the opposite. I’ve never felt more connected to the world. You get to see the whole thing. It’s right there in front of you. I think it’s a wonderfully deepening perspective to be able to travel and see the world that way.
Did anything physiologically wacky happen while you were playing?
If you want to picture what it’s like, imagine you were playing guitar floating in a swimming pool; it’s sort of like that in that there’s nothing to stabilize you and there’s nothing to stabilize the guitar, and gravity’s not going to hold the guitar in place in front of you. The mechanics of playing guitar have to be relearned. And also your vocal chords are swollen and your sinuses are full because there’s no gravity to drain the fluid out of your head. So what’s it like to play music on a spaceship? Put your guitar down on the ground next to the wall and then stand on your head, and then stand on your head for about three hours so that you really have a chance for the fluids in your body to shift into your upper body and into your head, and then, while you’re upside down, pick up the guitar and then play; that’s what it feels like. It feels that unfamiliar, and also that much more difficult, and your voice is that much changed.
just the pressure exerted when you’re singing using the diaphragm and voice control and everything else, it becomes similarly complex. So it’s not an easy place to record music. It’s a noisy place. On my album, all of the vocals and guitar were recorded and we didn’t modify them, because it was important to me as the first complete work of art ever done off the planet to make it representative. So all of the songs on Space Sessions are just my voice and guitar from the space station, and then we just added in instrumentals back on Earth.
How did that feel?
It’s a new human experience. We’re just starting to leave Earth and live permanently in other places. And it’s just the beginning of something. With Elon Musk’s announcement of having paid tourists with the ability to go around the moon late next year and what the Chinese are speaking about, building that habitation permanently on the moon, all of that is just natural human exploration. How we record it and celebrate it in art kind of defines who we are.
So what do you see in the future of space travel? And how does it feel knowing that you kind of started it for Canadians?
Well, I sure didn’t start it. Marc Garneau was the first Canadian in space in 1984, and we pioneered space-to-space communications and space satellites and space robotics. We’re world-class in space flight. I’m just part of all that. Where are we going next? We’ve been living on the Space Station for over 16 years. If anybody in the audience during the three shows [in Victoria] is 16 and a half or younger, they have never been alive when human beings weren’t living off of the Earth. And we tend to miss that, I think, in the day-to-day, that we ceased being a purely planetary species as of November of 2000. We remember 1492 as a significant year, when a particular European came across to make North America part of that history. That happened in fall of 2000 as well: we left Earth. So all the stuff we’re learning on the Space Station is enabling us to, with confidence, go further. And we’ll go to the moon next. It’s only three days away. It allows us to get stuff wrong. It takes time. But it becomes part of normal fairly rapidly. Right now six people live off the Earth. The natural, relatively inevitable progression is from the Space Station to the moon. Eventually we will have learned enough things and tested our equipment well enough and we’ll have the confidence to be able to go even further—to asteroids, over to Mars, and beyond. That’s the natural progression. It’s all driven by our ability to imagine and then turn our imaginations into reality. And a lot of that, to me, comes with art. David Bowie was inspired by the space program. It was the undercurrent to a lot of the music he wrote through his whole life. And he absolutely loved the version of “Space Oddity” that I did on the Space Station. He said it was the most poignant version of the song ever done, and, to me, that was the best part. It’s lovely that hundreds of millions of people have seen the recording, but to me, it was just delightful. As he was dying, [that song] put a great big smile on his face at the end of his life. To me, that was the best part of it: how dreams become reality.
Did you ever meet him?
We just emailed back and forth. When I released the album, he sent a lovely congratulatory note. He was exactly like everyone would have hoped him to be. He was kind and funny and original and considerate and respectful and everything.
So what are your future plans? And how do you keep growing after you’ve made it to space? That’s one of the biggest things that humans can do.
Well, I’ve written three books, and the first was to try and take the ideas that underpin what you just asked and write them out so that people could try and absorb it into their own lives, and that’s why I’ve called it An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Because that’s all that really matters: how do these thoughts matter to other people, and is there anything useful in them? And then the second book was just straight imagery. So much of our impression of the world is only through a filter where someone tells you what to think, where there’s an agenda to a documentary or a book. I don’t want to give people a preconceived agenda in order to understand our planet. They should have an honest and frank assessment of it themselves. So You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes is that. The third book, The Darkest Dark, is [about] how you deal with fear—specifically, to let a five-year-old know that it’s okay to be afraid. It’s how to deal with your fear that is going to help determine what type of person you’re going to become. I’m by no means finished. I will write other books. I think the next one will probably be targeting people eight to 12 years old, trying to present useful ideas to young adults, but we’ll see. And then the Generator project of trying to bring ideas as a form of evocative entertainment has been extremely successful in the two shows we did in Toronto. I tie in with classrooms all the time using Skype because I think Q&A with students is important. I consult. I’m helping choose the next Canadian astronauts with the Canadian Space Agency. And I’m hosting a series on BBC. I’m also hosting a Darren Aronofsky series on National Geographic called One Strange Rock. Just because you’ve done one thing in your life doesn’t mean that your life is over. It’s the opposite. Your life is a continuing development of what you’ve done and learned so far, and how does that position you to do the things that you want to do next? Playing the symphony in Victoria is the embodiment of that. I used to live in Victoria. I spent two years at university there at Royal Roads. I bought my first car there. It’s really the sharing of ideas, the taking of what I’ve done so far and trying to present it in a way that is as intriguing and thought-provoking and compelling to people as possible, and to not keep life to oneself; that’s kind of a waste.
You mentioned fear and how people deal with fear being up to them. How do you deal with it? If something were to go wrong, in space or in your life, how do you deal with the fear so that it will be beneficial to you rather than destructive?
It’s a really important question to sort out inside yourself, the difference between fear and danger. Fundamentally, fear and danger are not the same thing. Often, people phrase it as if they were; they say, “Oh, that space flight must be scary,” because they realize there’s danger and therefore they think that the right way to deal with it is to be afraid. But just because something has a level of risk doesn’t mean you need to be afraid. And there are also examples in each one of our lives that counter the argument. When you first learn to do anything, often it’s daunting. It makes you fearful because you don’t have any skills yet. But once you’ve learned how to do it, then you’re no longer afraid. Then you can take advantage of the danger because you’ve managed the risk, so now you can do something that used to be outside of your capabilities, like riding a bike. Flying a rocket ship is essentially just an extremely complex version of learning to ride a bike. But astronauts are not thrill seekers by any means.
What do you mean by that?
The last thing you want in your veins when you’re about to fly a rocket ship is adrenaline. That’s a million-year-old primitive way to allow us to run faster than the bear that is chasing us. That’s not how you want to fly a spaceship. You don’t fly a spaceship based on instinctive reaction and luck. It’s a much different process. But once you’ve learned to do something, then you can reap the benefits of it. Anything worth doing in life has risks. So the real question is what risks do you choose to take, and how do you modify who you are so that your way of dealing with the risk is not just crossing your fingers and shaking and chattering [your] teeth? That’s not how you want the astronaut to fly their rocket ship.
So how did you stay calm through that process?
Through decades of preparation. On March 24, if they grabbed you out of the audience and put you up front and said, “You are playing lead violin, and if you make a mistake, then one person in the symphony dies. And if you make another one, then another person in the symphony dies, and if you mess up enough, everybody in the entire auditorium dies. Go!” it would cripple you with lack of preparation and the enormous consequence of your errors. But instead if you said, “What I really want to do in life is play with the symphony and I’m going to start now, at five years old, to study music and to study the violin and gain my skills so that when I’m now 50 and the moment comes and I get to my solo and I have practiced and learned it and I have the skills—not just the skills, but the depth of love and appreciation—so that I soar with the song and bring it to life,” then you’re not creating—you are, in fact, revelling in the wonder that your skills have brought you. That’s how you fly a rocket ship.
What’s one piece of advice that you have for younger generations or aspiring astronauts or musicians?
To find what it is that you would love to be able to accomplish in life, and then start turning yourself into a person who can do that. Deliberately, step-by-step, piece-by-piece, change who you are to move closer to who you dream about being. To me, that’s the very essence of life.