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culture

Catching Up With Chris Hadfield, Canada’s Rock-Star Astronaut

Col. Chris Hadfield stopped by the Toronto Reference Library to talk space, life, and philosophy.

Chris Hadfield was at the Toronto Reference Library last night discussing the inner workings of outer space. The sold-out event was the latest in a string of appearances supporting the release of his acclaimed memoir and pseudo self-help manual, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Arguably the most famous contemporary astronaut on the planet, Hadfield shared stories and philosophies with an all-ages crowd of wide-eyed followers.

Hadfield has had the opportunity to view the world in a way most people will never experience. His three flights into space had a profound impact on the way he views the world and his place in it, and while the event shed light on his experiences in the universe, its greatest moments came when Hadfield discussed life.

“Life is not supposed to be linear,” he said. “The whole idea of living is to follow your distractions.”

This summer, Hadfield became the first Canadian to command a spaceship as commander of the International Space Station. He spent five months in space travelling some 99.8 million kilometres and completed 2,336 orbits of Earth. He returned with fellow astronauts Tom Marshburn (American) and Roman Romanenko (Russian), landing in Kazakhstan on May 13. But it was his antics in space—the way he documented experiments with water, food, and (lack of) gravity, and performed music—that made him a star. His collaboration with fellow Canadian icons the Barenaked Ladies resulted in the first song ever recorded aboard a space shuttle.

Later, he released his version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which has since been viewed more than 19 million times on YouTube. A surreal video that features Hadfield staring out into the universe as a vision of Earth passes by, it’s unlike anything produced before. It encapsulates perfectly the man that Hadfield is—gutsy and determined, but with a playful spirit and a passion for music.

While his aptitude for social media may have put Hadfield on the map, he is no stranger to success. He is a highly accomplished and award-winning pilot, who was one of only four Canadians selected to become astronauts in 1992 (when the Canadian Space Agency took out an ad in the newspaper). More than 5,300 people applied. He’s directed operations at NASA, was one of the astronauts to deliver and install the Canadarm2—for which he is featured on the new $5 bill—and he was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame back in 2005.

None of these accomplishments, though, quite prepared him for the experience of outer space. “Everything pales in comparison to going out on a spacewalk,” he said. And there was awe in his voice as he described his experiences in space and the vastness and loneliness of the universe. “It’s a palpable, textured, full emptiness—like velvet,” he said. “You can almost touch it.”

For a man who has spent so much time up in space, he certainly is down to earth. He recognizes that while his career path was a bit like playing the lottery, it was a game he always played with intent. He treated it as a competition he “had been competing in” his entire life. “The possibility [of becoming an astronaut] was infectious and intoxicating to me,” he said. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, Hadfield feared his “long-term dream” of becoming an astronaut was no longer possible. But he continued down the path anyway, building up his resume and pursuing his passion for flying.

Hadfield said the space agency looked for the same three things then as they do now: an advanced technical education and a “proven ability to learn complicated things at a high level; physical fitness (“You gotta fit in that spacesuit!”); and a “proven ability to make good decisions when consequences matter.” Additional knowledge of music, scuba diving, and various languages also helps. If this matches your description, we should point out that Hadfield has recently retired, which means there might be room for another Canadian space rock star.

People often ask him how he’ll top what he’s already done, but he said he doesn’t look at life that way. “Bucket lists are not a good measurement of accomplishment or self-worth,” he said. Instead, he encouraged everyone to start each day with an empty bucket and to take the time to appreciate and notice all of the good things that happen in your day. By the end of the day, he stressed, your bucket will always be full. “You need to redefine what is success for yourself,” he said—as that is the only way to live a fulfilled life.

Hadfield’s looking for new challenges, which may explain why he has accepted an invitation to dance in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve. Hadfield will appear as a Cannon Doll, a coveted guest role that has been filled in the past by such Canadians as Margaret Atwood and Doug Gilmour. Celebrity walk-ons are common during this annual stage production, but this is the first time an astronaut will appear onstage. It’s just another first for a man of many, and one that marks the beginning of a new frontier.

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