Chris Hadfield needs no introduction. The Canadian astronaut is one of the most famous people in the world, and during his time commanding the International Space Station was undoubtedly the most famous person off-world. On 12 January 2014 Armagh Planetarium was honoured by a visit from this legendary space traveller, during his brief time with us Cmdr Hadfield answered some of my many questions.
Q. What was your favourite aircraft?
A. I’ve flown about a hundred different types of airplanes. Of the hundred different kinds I like the ones that become unconscious, when it feels like you have wings on your back and of those I think that my favourite is the F-86 Sabre. You’re in a bubble canopy, sitting on top (of the fuselage), it’s a beautifully engineered extension of your personal capabilities. So I think my favourite would be the “Sword”, the F-86.
Q. You once intercepted Soviet bombers for a living, back then did you ever think you’d ever visit a Russian space station or fly on a Soyuz?
A. I’d hoped I’d be an astronaut since I was a kid, since I was nine years old, but in the eighties, when the Cold War was at its peak, I was a Cold Warrior flying CF-18s on alert to intercept Soviet aircraft heading towards Canadian airspace. In that time I never dreamed that I would fly with the Russians, that I would help build their space station, or in fact I would be a pilot on their Soyuz spaceship, it never occurred to me. I never thought that would happen.
Q. When you decided you wanted to be an astronaut, did you announce it to your family? How did they react?
A. I decided I’d be an astronaut when I was very young, when I was nine years old. So it’s not the sort of thing you announce, it’s more something between a childhood fantasy and a personal resolution. And it was so far-fetched at the time it would be like I was announcing I wanted to be Superman. It was just something I resolved to myself, and so my family treated it- they’d five kids- like it was just something one of their kids talked about. And the long shot odds of it, the improbability of it, if anything my father tried to dissuade me saying “You’ve got a family, you’ve got to feed your children, pick a career that’s going to work” and I nearly talked myself out of it several times. But between my own resolve and my wife’s understanding of how mutually important it was for each of us to pursue each other’s dreams, we stuck with it and something that was incredibly important to me as a young man became reality later.
Q. How did Mir compare to the ISS?
Mir was the first great international space station, it means “the World” in English actually, or it can mean “peace” which is quite a nice double meaning. Both words are the same, so they called it Mir. It was more like a grandchild (sic) of the International Space Station, a lot of the things we learned on Mir we improved or expanded upon for the International Space Station. It’s like looking at an early ship, and looking two or three generations later at another ship and seeing the improvements. It’s like looking at airliners, going from a 1960s airliner, maybe a DC-8, and looking at a (modern Boeing) 777. It’s similar but there’s a lot of advancements that make it more reliable, better powered, more comfortable. It’s like going from an old car to a new car!
Q. What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen or done in space?
A. Oh, just the antics of each other. The funniest thing is always people, nothing queer as folk, that’s definitely true. And the deliberate antics we get up to, because you’re a very small community a long way from home and people are very willing to mock themselves and be ridiculous for the general merriment of everyone else. Just put on a stupid hat, sing a silly song, tell a funny story or do something hilarious, so it’s always the antics of each other!
Q. What was the best meal you ever had in space?
A. On my second spaceflight, which was when I was on Space Shuttle Endeavour, we went up to help build the International Space Station, we hosted a Hawaiian dinner. We had Hawaiian chicken – irradiated –dehydrated pineapple juice, we had a bunch of different Hawaiian-themed foods which somehow survived the dehydration, the irradiation and the thermal stabilisation pretty well. But of course it’s the gathering of our Space Shuttle crew joining in with the Space Station crew celebrating where we were essentially, with a luau which is a nice way to have an international meal celebration. It may not have been just necessarily the best food , but as in any good meal it’s the people and the atmosphere of it that make the difference. I think that’s the best one.
Q. What aspect of everyday life on Earth did you miss most in space?
A. I don’t spend any time missing things, I really try and enjoy it and have a look at what’s going on right now. That was true in orbit. I guess I missed most straight physical contact with family, you know, hugging, that type of thing. It gets a little austere and monastic, the life up there but it’s also incredibly rich in other ways so it’s a good trade-off.
Q. We’re all impressed by the pictures you’ve tweeted from space and your very informative and insightful comments on them. Did you plan each of these in advance or did you take a picture you liked and write it up afterwards?
A. It’s a combination of both. You’re over water three quarters of the time, because the world is 75 percent ocean and so when you’re coming across the land, that’s when you would take the predominance of the pictures. Part it was planned, I would know that I wanted a really good picture say of Mecca or a very good picture of Ayer’s Rock or one those things which is an obvious sight to get a photograph of. But sometimes it was just happenstance, I was at the window and the Sun just got a glimpse, or a glint or a look and I just took a picture. Of course I would take several. Digital photography is wonderful that way, I would take one or two hundred pictures, go back to my computer and flick through them and say “Wow, that one came out beautiful” and that’s the one I would send to Earth.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator. My thanks to Cmdr Hadfield and family, the Tourism Ireland team and every one who helped this visit take place)