On May 13, 2013, Chris Hadfield fell out of the sky, landing hard in a field in Kazakhstan.
Thirty years earlier, the implications of this would have been very different. Born and raised during the Cold War, Chris Hadfield was a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilot who in the mid-1980s flew McDonnell Douglas CF-18s for the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). During this time, he gained renown for flying the first CF-18 intercept of a Soviet Tupelo Tu-95 aircraft — the strategic bomber known by the NATO reporting name “Bear.”
When he landed in Kazakhstan, however, it was not under duress, but in a Soyuz spacecraft with two other astronauts (one Russian, one American). The Mil Mi-8 helicopters that flew to meet him were friendly, not hostile, and few of the people watching at home remembered or cared about his Cold War exploits. Instead, they recognized Hadfield as one of the most visible and engaging astronauts ever to reside aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — a global ambassador of peace and progress with a million Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook.
What a difference three decades can make, as Hadfield, now 53, remarked in a press conference shortly after his return to Earth. “I was intercepting Soviet bombers in the ’80s,” he recalled, reflecting on the political and technological changes that led to him concluding his five-month space mission in formerly Soviet territory. “And now, look where we are. This space station is a wonderful example of how people can do things right.”
The Right Stuff
“Doing things right” is Chris Hadfield’s hallmark. From an early age, Hadfield — who was born in Sarnia and raised in Milton, Ont. — was a chronically high achiever. As an Air Cadet, he won a glider pilot scholarship at age 15, and a powered pilot scholarship at age 16. He graduated as an Ontario Scholar from Milton District High School in 1977, and joined the Canadian Armed Forces in May 1978. Four years later, he graduated with honours from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Hadfield earned honours as a pilot, too. He underwent his basic military flight training in Portage La Prairie, Man., where he was named top pilot in 1980; and in 1983, he was named the overall top graduate from basic jet training in Moose Jaw, Sask. From 1984 to 1985, he trained as a fighter pilot in Cold Lake, Alta., on Canadair CF-5s and CF-18s. For the next three years he flew for NORAD with 425 Squadron, during which time he flew the Tu-95 intercept in the Canadian Arctic.
From NORAD, Hadfield moved into a test pilot track, attending the United States Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He then served as an exchange officer with the U.S. Navy at Strike Test Directorate, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. There, he was involved in testing F/A-18 and A-7 aircraft, completed research work with NASA on pitch control margin simulation and flight, and performed the first flight test of the National Aero-Space Plane external burning hydrogen propulsion engine, among other projects.
In 1992, Hadfield was selected as one of four new Canadian astronauts, launching a space career that now spans more than two decades. Early on, Hadfield was assigned to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where he performed various functions for the space shuttle program (including the role of Chief CapCom, the voice of mission control for astronauts in orbit). In November 1995, Hadfield served as Mission Specialist 1 on STS-74, NASA’s second space shuttle mission to rendezvous and dock with the Russian Space Station Mir. He became the first Canadian mission specialist, the first Canadian to operate the Canadian-built robotic arm “Canadarm” in orbit, and the only Canadian ever to board Mir.
Hadfield made his second spaceflight in April 2001, serving as Mission Specialist 1 on STS-100 ISS assembly Flight 6A. As part of the crew that delivered and installed Canadarm2, Hadfield performed two spacewalks during the 11-day flight, making him the first Canadian to float freely in space. From 2001 to 2003 — the year in which he retired from the RCAF as a colonel — Hadfield was the director of operations for NASA at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia, where he became fully qualified to be a flight engineer in the Soyuz TMA spacecraft. From 2003 to 2006, he was chief of robotics for the NASA Astronaut Office at the Johnson Space Center, and he was chief of ISS operations there from 2006 to 2008.
Over the next two years, Hadfield served as the backup to Dr. Bob Thirsk for the long-duration spaceflight Expedition 20/21, and supported and developed emergency procedures for the ISS. But he also explored our other final frontier — the underwater one. In May 2010, Hadfield was the commander of NEEMO 14, a NASA undersea mission to test exploration concepts living in an underwater facility off the Florida coast. In June of that year, he was part of the Pavilion Lake research team, exploring a lake 420 kilometres northeast of Vancouver that is one of the few places on Earth where it is possible to find microbialites (rocks influenced by microbial growth during their formation). The team used remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, SCUBA divers and DeepWorker submersibles to study how the microbialites formed, with an eye towards identifying potential forms of extraterrestrial life on future visits to Mars.
Clearly, Hadfield’s reputation and expertise were established long before Dec. 19, 2012, when he launched aboard the Russian Soyuz, en route for five months on the ISS as part of Expedition 34/35. But while Hadfield had been inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2005 — and in 2006 had even been commemorated on Royal Canadian Mint silver and gold coins for his Canadarm2 spacewalk — he was not yet a household name. Thanks to the power of social media, however, that was about to change.
Ground Control to @Cmdr_Hadfield
According to Julie Simard, senior advisor for media relations and special projects at the Canadian Space Agency, the CSA began strategizing a communications plan for Hadfield’s mission more than two years ago (Hadfield was selected for Expedition 34/35 in September 2010).
“At that time we realized that written documents on the web were not as efficient as we would like” at spreading the CSA’s message, Simard told Canadian Skies. “We decided we were going to put the focus on video.”
Hadfield began documenting the astronaut experience during his training for Expedition 34/35, submitting video footage that CSA communications personnel edited into watchable clips and uploaded to YouTube. But while these early videos attracted a moderate number of viewers, once Hadfield was aboard the ISS, his YouTube celebrity skyrocketed. Hadfield began sharing videos of ordinary life aboard the space station: how the contents of a can of mixed nuts float in zero gravity; how astronauts shave in space. And the YouTube-viewing public loved it. More than eight million people have watched the CSA’s official YouTube video of Hadfield wringing water from a towel aboard the ISS (and with good reason — it’s not at all like wringing water from a towel on Earth. See for yourself by visiting www.youtube.com/user/canadianspaceagency
). The towel-wringing video was suggested by two high school students who won a CSA-sponsored science contest, just one example of Hadfield’s almost continuous interaction with students. “Chris is really keen on talking to students,” said Simard. “He wants to make them aware of what it’s like to be in space; what it’s like to pursue your dreams.”
Hadfield’s crowning video achievement, released just before his return to Earth, was the first music video to be recorded in space — a cover of the David Bowie song “Space Oddity.” Produced with Bowie’s blessing, the video features Hadfield’s vocals and guitar, as well as memorable shots of said guitar spiraling weightlessly through the corridors of the ISS. Hadfield’s Earth-bound friend, Emm Gryner, contributed a piano track, while Joe Corcoran, Andrew Tidby and Evan Hadfield (one of three adult children Hadfield has with his wife, Helene) assisted with production. Not only did the video take YouTube by storm (with over 16 million views to date), it received worldwide coverage in the mainstream media, with the papers praising Hadfield for “making space cool again.”
Unlike many accidental YouTube stars, Hadfield and his supporting team effectively harnessed social media to steer his viral celebrity. Here, Evan Hadfield took the lead, devoting long hours to managing his father’s Twitter account (@Cmdr_Hadfield) and Facebook page. From the ISS, Chris Hadfield emailed spectacular photos of Earth as seen from space, which Evan uploaded to Twitter and Facebook (in addition to sifting through the thousands of mentions and messages his father received each day). Social media enabled hundreds of thousands of people to share Hadfield’s daily wonder aboard the ISS — to reflect upon the geographic beauty of the Earth, and the arbitrariness of the human borders that divide it.
Despite this global perspective, Hadfield exhibited a special fondness for his Canadian audience. Perhaps the most impressive shot he took over Canada was one depicting a J-shaped smoke trail over the Strait of Georgia, off the east coast of Vancouver Island. That smoke trail came from none other than 11 Canadair CT-114 Tutor aircraft from the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron — better known as the Snowbirds — plus one CF-18 Hornet from the CF-18 Hornet Demonstration Team, all trailing extra smoke for the first photo of an aircraft demonstration team from space.
According to Capt Tom Edelson, the Snowbirds’ public affairs officer, arranging the snapshot on April 21 was a massive feat of coordination. “There were more variables than I had anticipated,” he told Canadian Skies, listing weather, sun angle and orbital geometry as just a few of the factors that had to line up perfectly for the two-minute photo window on April 21. “We were going to get one shot at it.”
Shortly after the ISS passed overhead — 370 kilometres above the earth, traveling at 28,000 kilometres per hour — Hadfield called Edelson to report success. “He said he could see it without the lens [of his camera] just by looking out the window,” Edelson said, adding that Hadfield has been “a good friend to the team. . . It was great to work with a Canadian of Commander Hadfield’s popularity and stature.”
The Spinoffs that Matter
From a public relations perspective, Hadfield’s five-month mission in space was an unqualified success. But while Hadfield almost single-handedly managed to “make space cool again,” becoming a celebrity was never his intention. After his return to Earth, he told Canadian reporters, “Yes, I understood that there was a growing interest and following for what was happening, but I just — it’s not my purpose. The purpose is to help people understand what is possible on the space station and the things we were doing.”
And the things that Hadfield and his colleagues were doing extended far beyond making music videos and posting photos on Facebook. (Indeed, Hadfield recorded the “Space Oddity” video in his designated off time, and he woke up during his scheduled sleep cycle in order to snap the Snowbirds shot.) “Each day [aboard the ISS] is incredibly busy,” said Hadfield, who was responsible for operating Canadarm2 and performing various robotics tasks aboard the ISS. “If you have 30 seconds, you don’t just wait for 30 seconds to pass and sit there and twiddle your thumbs — you do something.” Hadfield’s time aboard the space station was five months of filling “the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run,” he said, referencing the Rudyard Kipling poem If.
The weightless environment of the ISS is a unique laboratory, and Hadfield had more than 100 scientific experiments to occupy him during his five months aboard the space station. Some of these experiments had direct applications to life on Earth (“spinoffs,” in the language of NASA), while others involved “just figuring stuff out” about what it takes to live and work in space. Whether it’s building and operating equipment like the Canadarm, or perfecting the design of a space toilet, “We have to understand these things before we sail farther into the universe,” Hadfield said. “That combination of things — of being able to do research up there that you can’t do on Earth, of better understanding how to build the vessels that will take us further, and inspiring our youth to do something that was previously impossible — all three of those I think are the spinoffs that really matter, and that will be the lasting legacy of the space station.”
During the second half of his mission, Hadfield served as the commander of the ISS — the first Canadian to hold the honour. Yet while Hadfield may be the highest-profile member of the Canadian space program, he pointed out that “Canada has laid a superb path over the last 50 years [of space exploration]. We were the third nation to have our own satellite in space; led the world in communications and still do; we absolutely led the world in robotics and still do.” Hadfield also cited new satellite projects — including the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), which launched in February, and the Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Micro-Satellite (M3MSat) in development — as examples of Canada’s continued leadership in the field.
Hadfield admitted that space exploration is not a sure business: “We are always hostage to our next launch.” But despite this background of uncertainty, he said, “There’s a huge flow of things going on and as always it takes day-to-day work to earn the money from the Canadian taxpayer, to get their trust, to make sure that we are really husbanding the money as best we can and wringing the most out of every dollar. That is what I’ve been trying to do . . . for 21 years.”
Hadfield’s long career as an astronaut means that, as remarkable as Expedition 34/35 was, he regards the experience as only part of his professional identity, rather than his life’s crowning achievement. Responding to a reporter who asked if he felt a sense of let-down upon returning to Earth, he said, “I’m not a person who looks backward and wishes that the past was my present.” Indeed, he continued, “I take just as much pride in the great big dock that my neighbor Bob and I built at our cottage as I do in building Canadarm 2 on the space station.” On June 10, he announced his resignation from the Canadian Space Agency to pursue other professional challenges (and perhaps enjoy more time at that cottage).
All of that said, Hadfield — who spent several weeks after his return to Earth readjusting to the rude effects of gravity — admitted that “weightlessness is a superpower.” Earth may be where his life and the people he loves are, but “to have had the opportunity for five months of my life to flip things weightless in front of myself, and experience the joy of that, is something I will do my best to express to people and explain and describe for the rest of my life.”
Elan Head is an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. She holds commercial helicopter licenses in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and is also an award-winning journalist who has written for a diverse array of magazines and newspapers since the late-1990s.