Colonel Chris Hadfield playing guitar in the International Space Station.

Rockit Man: The Chris Hadfield Experience (Extended Interview)

After three trips to space, Colonel Hadfield sits down with AJ to share his rare perspective of Planet Earth.

COLONEL CHRIS HADFIELD spent 21 years with the Canadian Space Agency. During his three trips to space and 144 days commanding the International Space Station in 2012-13, he enjoyed a rare perspective on planet Earth. Six months after his return home and retirement from the agency, just what does one of this country’s most famous international stars have to say about the environmental state of the planet?

COLONEL CHRIS HADFIELD spent 21 years with the Canadian Space Agency. During his three trips to space and 144 days commanding the International Space Station in 2012-13, he enjoyed a rare perspective on planet Earth. Six months after his return home and retirement from the agency, just what does one of this country’s most famous international stars have to say about the environmental state of the planet?

Claudio D’Andrea spoke to Chris Hadfield on the telephone in early December. A portion of this interview appears in the Resource Wars issue; here’s the whole shebang:

CLAUDIO D’ANDREA: I know you’ve been asked this before but I feel compelled to ask again. The movie Gravity — did it all bring it back for you, Sandra Bullock’s unrealistic underwear notwithstanding?

CHRIS HADFIELD: What it really brought back was the three-dimensional set of being out on a spacewalk. There has never been the technology for a movie that has shown as evocatively the wonder and the emptiness and the openness of what it’s like to be out on a spacewalk with you alone in between the world and the universe. Especially that long opening sequence.

You know, the things they’re doing are very Hollywood. It’s not a realistic storyline, but you know it’s not supposed to be. It’s a movie. But the visuals of it are stupendously good. I spoke with the director, and with Sandra Bullock in fact, and complimented him on [this] amazing ability … To show that great depth of field and to have the universe under your feet, not just above you but under your feet and around you. That, I feel, they really did very well. So, from that point, it did take me back. You know, there’s stuff that happened that, of course as an astronaut, I’m obliged to sort of pick through it in my mind and go, ‘Well, that’s realistic and that isn’t.’ I’m kind of a biased observer to a movie like that. But the movie’s done extremely well and I think it’s good that it did because it does show the environment so well.

CD: You were chosen an Eco-Hero at Planet in Focus at Toronto’s Environmental Film Festival. What were your thoughts about that, that particular honour and that event?

CH: Well, first of course, it’s an honour to be recognized and awarded by any group, especially one that is very concerned about the environment of the world and what we do about it and ways to address it.

Of course, I’ve thought about it just as any adult does: what are level of responsibility is, what actions we can take in order to make the environment as habitable for us and our descendants as possible. I really think what they’re doing is commendable in that you need to influence individual opinion if you want to change something. Especially if it’s something that is really long term. You need to change people’s expectations and perceptions of what is normal and acceptable.

There are lots of examples of it. Look at the anti-smoking campaign. When I grew up as a kid, everybody smoked. It was normal, it was cool. It was not only accepted, it was encouraged. Smoking itself didn’t change and human physiology didn’t change. All that changed was people’s perceptions and expectations. Same thing about being a litterbug. As a kid – I mean, my grandmother would just throw stuff out of the window of a car, or out of a boat or whatever. The universe was large and her little bit of garbage was small and that’s just what you do. Whereas when we started the litterbug campaign in the ’60s – ‘Don’t be a litterbug’ – that made a huge impact! So for me, I would never  even throw a bottlecap out the window of a car – it’s just been ingrained into me as to what I expect. Same thing about airbags. Airbags were – no one would get airbags in the ’80s and ’90s even though the technology existed. It just did not engage everyone’s expectations. But now, shoot, you can’t get a car with less than eight airbags in it and it’s a good idea.

So trying to understand our place in the environment and our level of personal responsibility is in the same category. People aren’t changing. The way that we need energy to stay alive – that isn’t changing. But what is, what can change is individual choices based on their expectations of what is normal.

You know if you talk to people and it’s like, ‘How can this be?’ Governments will reflect the will of the people. It may take awhile, but they will. But government is not going to be able to lead the charge. They try to lead the charge in some areas…but it almost always comes down to private groups and individual groups…So if you could culturally make people aware of the problem, as well as time difficulty. If you could break through generational biases of what’s normal, if you could get people to see that their individual actions actually make a difference, then you can have a collective difference.

It’s a real reflection of what I tried to do during my 21 years as an astronaut. It was to get people to actually see the world. Not just as a map with countries of different colours. Or as a little circle of us in an enormous, uncared for collection of them. It’s just a whole bunch of us. We’re all of us in this together.

The beauty of being an astronaut and orbiting the world thousands of times like I have is that it speaks of the inevitable pervasiveness of us. It becomes ingrained. So I aimed — in all three flights and throughout my 21 years, most specifically during my six months in orbit…to get people to see the world in that way and maybe to try and influence them.

So I’m thankful to the folks for giving me the Eco-Hero award. I think we’re both trying to address a universally shared problem through somewhat the same method. And hopefully amongst all the other influences, this will get people to try to change their behavior.

CD: And you accepted your award via Skype, I think it was because you didn’t want to burn any carbon by flying to Toronto.

CH: That sounds nice in retrospect, but in truth I was just somewhere else. The reality of it is, I have very enormous requests and demands on my time. There’s only one of me and I want to honour all the requests that I can. Using technology, especially virtual presence, of course, is a smart way to go and so I was glad to be able to participate.

CD: In the Space Oddity video, I sense almost a melancholia, as if you’re giving an elegy to a sad, broken planet. Is that what you were feeling at the time?

CH: It was surprising to me too. Here’s how that sequence went. I agreed to my son’s request to make a vocal track of Oddity. But really I just did it as a karaoke exercise. I put David Bowie on my computer. I had the earphones in one ear and then I recorded my voice just using a microphone into my iPad with GarageBand. So I ended up laying down a pure vocal track, but in the key and in the timing and to the arrangements of David Bowie. So it was just pure karaoke. What surprised me – and I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh yeah.’ I was just thinking, ‘Ah, what the hell.’ And I had exactly the same observation you had.

When I listened to my voice after, it had a wistfulness to it, a melancholy to it. It occurred to me that somehow, the place had seeped into my voice. For me it was an interesting reflection. I have never tried to sing that song before. I knew it just like everybody else, and I’ve fronted bands for the last 20 years – I’m sort of a frontman kind of guy, and so I had sung thousands of songs — but I had never sung that song before. So when I went back after I took the Bowie earplugs out and I went back and listened to just my own voice, I was kind of entranced a little bit to listen to how his genius, like his ability to visualize and to write both the melody and expressive lyrics, were present.

When I sang it in that place, it somehow melded together in feeling, in emotion, in human reaction. And I wasn’t expecting it. My observations were purely afterward going, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting to hear.’ It made the whole project immediately much more interesting to hear the sense of place unconsciously reflected in how I ended up singing it without thinking about it. That’s part of the whole reason why we ended up pressing on with the whole project, putting instrumentals underneath it and everything, was because of the evocative nature of the vocals around it. And I had thought about it since as to why.

I think – I’m not sure that the melancholy is really a sadness. I think it’s more of a deep perspective.

… I’m not sad but the nature of the world. I’m extremely optimistic. Everyone always gets excited about this, and it’s normal. Everybody wants their 75 years on earth to be the most important 75 years in the four and a half billion years’ history of the planet. That’s why the world was going to end last December – remember? And in the year 2000, the Y2K project. People were building bunkers and selling all their possessions. Everyone wants to feel more significant, and they manifest it in a bunch of different ways. The Chicken Little Syndrome is common. Chicken Little wasn’t invented with climate change, but there are lot of people that for the same reasons that the end of the world is coming and the Mayan calendar hub-bub and Chicken Little, that big sort of fundamental human necessity for significance, it manifests itself in some people latching on to global warming as the end of the world. Then it gives you something to get all emotional about, and get all upset about, or whatever particular reaction you have.

I’m not. I’m not depressed about it. It’s just a thing, it is a natural result. It’s the same as if you have 20 people in your living room. It gets a little hot and you need to open up the windows and change the environment.

If we have seven billion people on the planet, we are going to have an affect. But the real key is not to get depressed about it, not to get melancholy about it, but to figure out what are the real key causes. What are the actual triggers that are making this happen, and what can we do about it? We can’t just go and kill three quarters of the people on Earth. We can’t just starve everybody. We have to, always, dance with the partner that brought us. That’s just part of being alive. And we need to decide what we’re going to do about it.

That’s why awareness is the first main step. People truly need to understand not just the emotional side of it, but the technical and the factual side of the issues. What are the real causal factors? We don’t know the answer. There’s lots of evidence, there’s lots of ideas, there’s lots of ways to measure it. There are some obvious culprits. But to put everything in proportion, to actually see how are we going to get the most bang for our buck, to try and minimize the effects of it, to truly be able to predict it, to figure out what is a human effect which are obviously undeniably there, but also what is a natural effect which is also obviously, undeniably there. You have to get educated and aware.

Some of the research is really key. Like when they’re looking at the algae growth on the rocks in the Arctic, underneath the ice for the last 50,000 years. That’s one of the best indicators I’ve seen to truly get a long-term understanding of the specifics of everything that’s going on. That type of data is critical if you truly want to not just be sad or feel broken or feel melancholy but if you truly want to understand what is the situation, what are the causal factors, what are our ways to modify it, and what should we all do to try and minimize the effects on the planet…

So, yeah, I think the melancholy that was in my voice was mostly due to Bowie’s genius and sort of the magical ballet-like existence of living in a place like that. But my thoughts about helping the world itself are perhaps more prosaic and pragmatic.

CD: That’s a good segue to my next question. It’s about your environmental consciousness. Was that something that really grew out of your space travel. For instance, in your book, you said you have now a real personal obligation to be a good ‘steward of the planet’.

CH: Absolutely.

CD: But you also have written that humans, through poor stewardship, have made problems in nature worse. I remember, I recall an interview — I think it was with Florida Today – where it almost looked as if you were hedging on what the causes are for climate change. You said, ‘Climate change is happening naturally, and perhaps as a result of what we have done, our influence.’

CH: I mean it’s obviously both. The temperatures in cities are different than the temperatures in the countryside. That’s climate change, obviously. That’s human-created climate change. There is no doubt. There’s no hedging to be done. But there is a very pervasive emotional reaction that is not based on fact. And it’s very difficult to filter out the facts, because the facts of it are important. I’m not hedging at all – it’s both.

I launched on my first flight – and forgive me if I get off track – but I launched on my first flight in 1995 shortly after Mount Pinatubo erupted. And Mount Pinatubo spit an enormous amount of natural pollutants into the atmosphere. It put millions of tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. That’s millions and millions of tonnes of sulfur dioxide and it caused significant opening of holes in the ozone layer and it cooled the world by a degree. The entire world cooled down by one degree because of one not-that-significant – I mean most people have never even heard of it – not-that-significant volcano erupting. It affected the climate of the entire world measurably. And visibly. When I was in space…you can see that particulate in the upper atmosphere. You can see the actual layers of the atmosphere that were being optically changed by a natural process.

So, to say that climate change is entirely man-made is just stated out of ignorance, but to say that the seven billion have not affected the climate, that’s also just a statement of ignorance. It’s both. The real hard part, the real hard part is deciding what to do next…It’s not a clean slate, it’s not a perfect world, but we have to deal with it.

The lead-in article that I wrote – I wrote an article in Wired magazine this month – very much addresses this issue as well because I really feel strongly that we have to take responsibility for our own existence. But we have to do it as one.

CD: You’re very outspoken about the damage to the earth in certain places that you were able to view. I think of the Aral Sea on several occasions in particular, I think you mentioned deforestation in Madagascar.

CH: Absolutely.

CD: I don’t know if you’ve ever commented, or made any observations about things like, say, the tarsands which are very much discussed these days. Maude Barlow compared them to Mordor. Did you manage to see any of that when you were in outer space?

CH: But comparisons to Mordor are just frustrating because that’s just an imaginary place. It blurs the reality of our problem with – I don’t know, to me that is not –. It’s such a throwaway thing to say that doesn’t help solve the problem. And I have a hard time to comment because I did not see it from orbit. I didn’t personally, with my eyes, see anything… We’re about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton in the uppermost northern – our orbit is – I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at how the space station goes around the world but the orbit doesn’t go from the north pole to the south pole, nor does it stay directly over the equator. It’s as if you had a string spinning around the world that wasn’t exactly aligned with the equator. It’s a fifth and the northernmost reach of our orbit is 51 or 52 degrees north and 52 degrees south. So we can’t see directly down into northern Canada. We can only see it … in the distance.

It’s not as if I don’t think the tarsands have a tremendous environmental impact at all. But I never saw, nor got a picture of anything so I don’t want to imagine things or talk about things that I didn’t see. It wasn’t something I did see. It’s like talking about the deforestation of the Amazon. The Amazon is almost always really difficult to get a good visual image, a good photograph, even though I know there’s extensive deforestation. I got a few pictures there. But I try to be evidence-based, not just on popular emotion based.

All sorts of people are asking me now to comment on popular issues. I am not a noisemaker. I base my life on science, on fact and what then we can do about it. That’s how you fly rocketships, that’s how you fly spaceships. That’s how you fly airplanes. That’s how, I think, you actually fix the problems on earth. So I want to really understand it before I start adding my voice to the noise. If I’m going to start speaking about something like that, I want to be informed.

So apart from the fact that I don’t think there’s an inherent problem – obviously if you’re going to use superheated water in surface mining to extract energy, there are  environmental costs. Absolutely no doubt about it. But I haven’t been there in person to see it, nor did I see it in space, so I have to start researching it and try to make sure that before I do speak publicly I’m speaking from a knowledge base.

CD: That’s fair enough. I agree and I think most people agree that this is a shared responsibility, and most people have to understand it as you said and act accordingly to affect change. But I think you would agree too that politics has to come into play here, right, and I think you mentioned that too. Governments have to, and will, listen to the will of the people once that kind of mindset changes. What do you think about governments and their roles in what they’ve done right now in climate change, and reducing carbon emissions. Do you think that they’ve done enough?

CH:  We live in a democracy. We don’t have a king that is telling us, we don’t have some sort of a dictator that we have no choices in. We elected our own government. The government is, whether we like it or not, the government is a direct reflection of the will of the people. To blame the government is sort of to hide and shirk responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, look what their government did.’

We elected the government. The government are citizens of the same country that we are. We put them into the positions to make decisions. And they’re only there on a, whatever, a four-year type of electoral cycle. So it’s easy to put your hands in the air and go, ‘Oh, well, everything would have been okay if our government hadn’t done this.’

That’s not the case. We demand of our government to take a good leadership role. We expect them to do what we elected them for. We expect them to be responsible, we expect them to think of the long term. But the bottom line is they are a reflection of the voters and if we don’t like what the government is doing, then we need to vote differently. And we need to talk to our local representative of government. To absolve ourselves of blame, and blame it on the transient government of the day, is really just a shirking of individual responsibility. If you’re truly passionate about the issue, then do something about it. Don’t just blame some nebulous entity called the government and say it’s their fault. That’s just so easy. So we expect our government to be responsible, to act responsibly, to do things good for the long term.

But no government is perfect. It’s just a bunch of people. They have pressures that we have no idea about. They have to answer to so many different people. They have responsibilities.

You know, to some degree, their view is parental. If you’re the parent, you have to make different decisions than the children, but you’re actually all in it together. Anybody who has been a parent realizes that you can’t always get your children to understand why you’re making decisions. You can’t always explain everything. And as parents, you make mistakes. It’s just different.

But the key is, for the populace to become informed, and then to demand of their elected officials to then make decisions that reflect the will of the populace. That’s how the system has to work. And our elected officials are doing their best to do what they think is right. If they’re making decisions that we disagree on, then the onus is on us to decide how we’re going to deal with it then. There will always be some subset of the population that disagrees with the government. We’re never going to have 100 per cent majority, right. There’s always going to be people that feel differently than the people that are elected into the positions of authority. And (they) feel there’s something that the government could do more than they are. That’s the reality of it.

I’m trying to decide right now, of course, what is the right thing for me, personally. It’s just like everybody ought to be different. These are the things I feel strongly about therefore, what am I going to do about it. Do I just say, ‘I feel strongly about this but I’m powerless to deal with it, so I’m not going to do anything? Or, I’m just going to gripe about it. Or, I can’t affect federal policy, but you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to clean my yard. Or I’m going to organize my little town to clean up the park, or clean up that river. Or I’m going to start a solar-powered farm in my neighbourhood. Or I’m going to whatever. That’s an actual worthwhile thing to do.

But to just say it’s the government’s fault, if we only had a different government everything would be perfect. I don’t know what that other government is that’s going to make everything perfect. It’s not like we have some miracle government or group of people or geniuses waiting in the wings ready to step in and suddenly wave the magic wand and solve all the problems. That’s just not the way it works.

It’s easy to be cynical and cast blame. It’s extremely difficult to actually take responsibility and change things. I exhort everyone to try and be part of the second group, not the first on one. Not just griping about things, but actually to try and take action.

If you truly believe that this government, or this person or this organization or this policy is wrong, then decide how you can influence it to the best of your ability to try and change it. That, I think, is the real core of democracy. That’s also the real core of our behavior as responsible custodians of the world.

CD: I guess this is just a general question. You guess that you’ve spun around the world, I think you said, 2,500 times. And on the International Space Station you’ve written about seeing 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets a day. To a layperson that’s astonishing. Did you find it astonishing?

CH: To me it’s astonishing. Absolutely, it’s astonishing. And you know what’s really astonishing to me now is to wake up in the morning or just before bed and watch the space station go over me and actually see the brightest star in the sky go from horizon to horizon. To try to link in my mind, to try and somehow bridge in my mind the actual experience in the place that I have lived and link it to that surreal looking human creation of a star going across the sky. I still, you know I’ve been back a half a year and I still haven’t got it sorted it out. I may be in a rocking chair before I figure out how to rationalize it in my own mind.

CD: What star was that?

CH: The space station. The dichotomy of those two experiences; of living there and seeing the world from the station, and now standing on the world, looking up and seeing the space station go over. The two are very distinct experiences and I haven’t figured out yet how to sort it out physically or emotionally and mentally in my head.

CD: Thank you so much for this.

CH: It’s really nice talking to you. You know what, let me just say this too. People have been asking me, ‘What are you going to do now that you’ve got back?’ That’s kind of a, not a very deeply thought out question.

CD: That’s why I didn’t ask you that.

CH: No, I know. But the thing is they just noticed that I was an astronaut because I sang a David Bowie video. I was an astronaut for 21 years, for seven days a week for 21 years. I trained and studied flew in space three times. I was a NASA director in Russia. I’ve done a lot of things over 21 years and suddenly I’ve got people saying, ‘Oh, you were up in the space station? Now what are you going to do?’ So it’s just kind of funny.

But it is a question I’m asking myself: What am I going to do? It’s conversations just like this one that I’m really seeking out because I’m looking to see what are the triggers, what are the issues that get me emotional? Which are the ones where I think I can have the most impact. Whatever level of public voice I have right now, where can I best apply it so that at the end of each day, each week, I feel like I’ve accomplished something? Or that I’m working toward an issue that is important to me. And what I’m using as my own barometer or thermometer is to see what issues get under my skin, and what issues are fundamentally intriguing or emotionally exciting for me. So I’m glad to have a chance to talk with you a little bit today because it’s sort of a self-discovery thing and it’s helping me choose for the next 30 years the type of things that I want to do.

Claudio D’Andrea is an award winning journalist and edits special features for the Windsor Star.