Chris Hadfield may not be quite the household name among astronauts that John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, or Buzz Aldrin are, but he tops them all in at least one category: Hadfield’s video version of the David Bowie tune “Space Oddity,” recorded on the International Space Station, has been viewed more than 19 million times on YouTube. That’s by far the most hits among his many made-from-space flicks and eclipses on-line hits on Moon-landing videos.
Hadfield made a stop in Seattle earlier this month for a talk before a large crowd at Town Hall Seattle, where he signed copies of his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.
Though YouTube didn’t exist during the Apollo era, Hadfield said he was nonetheless inspired by the space pioneers.
“I decided to be an astronaut when I was nine; that’s when Neil and Buzz walked on the Moon,” he said. This was especially challenging for a kid from Canada. “It wasn’t just hard, it was impossible. There was no Canadian astronaut program.”
He pursued the dream anyway, learning to fly airplanes as a teen, and picking up astronaut-type skills the best he could until, finally, the opportunity presented itself.
Hadfield didn’t talk much about the book during his Seattle event, mostly limiting prepared remarks to an account of what it’s like to be launched into space. He said the first nine minutes bring the majority of the risk on any mission.
“You have seven million pounds of thrust and you are going… somewhere!” he said. “It feels like something crashed into your spaceship. There’s this big pulse of energy through the whole ship and then a big rumbling vibration. You can’t hear it, but oh, you can feel it, like a piston in the small of your back that pushes harder and harder.”
He said that on his first space flight he experienced an unexpected injury by the time they reached orbit.
“About this time I noticed my face hurt; my cheeks were all cramped up and I realized that I’d been smiling so broadly,” Hadfield recalled.
“I laughed at myself to think that I didn’t know how much fun I was having. Part of me was going ‘OK check the pressures, check this, call out the distances, all the ranges, black zones, all the rest of it,’ and part of me was going ‘WHEEEEEE!'”
Hadfield said that playing guitar in space is an interesting experience because of weightlessness.
“When you fret with your hands, the whole guitar just takes off!” he said. “Eventually you learn how to stabilize it.”
In addition, he said that playing with a weightless arm throws you off.
“When you try to do something quick up and down the neck you miss,” Hadfield explained. “You have to re-learn how to fret properly.”
There’s a West Coast connection to Hadfield’s space musicianship. He has a special guitar made by Roscoe Wright of Wright Guitars in Eugene, Oregon.
“He makes this really weird guitar that is just the fret board,” Hadfield said. “The guitar pieces are actually like a coat hanger, so that it gives the shape of a guitar, it feels like a guitar against your body, but it folds up really tiny, a really clever design. I got him to cut the neck in half so it would fit into a shuttle locker. He built one special for me.”
It’s not the guitar used in the “Space Oddity” video, which is an ordinary acoustic instrument.
Hadfield also fielded questions about the past and the future of space exploration. He, like most astronauts I’ve heard speak, thinks that shutting down the space shuttle program was the right call, noting that shuttles flew for the better part of three decades.
“You probably don’t drive a 30 year old car to work every day, you sure don’t drive one to space every day,” Hadfield said.
“There’s only so much money in the NASA budget, and you can’t fly an expensive vehicle while building a new vehicle unless you get a big whack of money from somebody else, and there was no somebody else,” he explained. “I think we did it just right.”
“Everybody should celebrate the space shuttle,” he added. “It was the most capable vehicle we’ve ever built and it served us superbly. I was delighted to get a chance to fly it.”
As for the future, Hadfield feels the next logical step in humanity’s continuing drive to explore will be an international effort to return to the Moon.
“We need to learn how to go live there,” he said. “We will learn an awful lot by setting up permanent habitation on the Moon over the next–who knows? 30 years, couple generations. From there hopefully we’ll invent enough things that we can go even further.”