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Science & Tech

Q&A: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

  • Published Feb 14, 2013
  • Updated Apr 06, 2023
  • 1,023 words
  • 5 minutes
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At age nine, Chris Hadfield decided he wanted to become an astronaut. Lots of children do. The difference is that forty years later Hadfield is orbiting Earth as soon-to-be commander of the International Space Station (ISS), one of the highest-profile roles ever to be filled by a Canadian in space.

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“Frozen crests of sand break over the arid rock, Namibian coast, Africa.” Photo: Chris Hadfield, NASA

Since arriving at the ISS, Hadfield has reached intergalactic celebrity. He has dropped the puck at a Toronto Maple Leafs game (from space), hosted numerous webcasts and tweeted with Captain Kirk. But it isn’t just tweets and streaming for this astronaut; Hadfield is currently serving as the flight engineer on Expedition 34 and will become the commander of Expedition 35 next month.

This mission marks Hadfield’s third time in space. During his last expedition in 2001, Hadfield became the first Canadian to float freely in space.

Since arriving at the ISS on Dec. 21, 2012, Hadfield has garnered the attention of millions around the world with his educational videos, webcasts and stunning geographical photography.

We asked Hadfield what is was like to live and work on the ISS:

Can Geo: How do you spend your days in space? How will your responsibilities shift as you enter the role of commander in March?

CH: The vast majority of our time on ISS is for doing experiments, running the science equipment and keeping the spaceship healthy. We also exercise for two hours every day to maintain bone density and muscle strength in weightlessness. With that, meals and sleep, it fills our days. The entire crew is on that schedule, since we are a small band and need to be jacks-of-all-trades. Thus, being the commander is an added responsibility. As CDR, I look ahead to upcoming events, monitor how everyone and the ship is doing and work with our team on Earth to ensure we are meeting our primary goals: crew safety and health, vehicle health, and science accomplishment. As I assume command, I will have less free time and a more proprietary interest in everything that is happening. I’ll set the tone for the crew, ensure everyone is getting what they need and be ready to make decisions for us all, as needed by the situation. In an emergency, the safety of the ship and the lives of the crew are my responsibility. Fortunately, I have had the chance to be a member of the crew since Dec. 21, 2012, so I have had a long period to observe how things are done and how the ship runs best. I am really looking forward to commanding this spaceship — I see it as a challenge I have made myself ready for.

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“Newfoundland and Labrador, without zoom.” Photo: Chris Hadfield, NASA

Can Geo: The isolation of space must be difficult over long periods of time away from friends and family — what do you do to keep both physically and mentally fit?
CH: Isolation is both physical and mental. My experience has been that people who live in the same house can feel isolated from each other and that most of the world’s lonely people live in cities. In addition, this spaceflight launched on Dec. 19, 2012, but the training began many years ago and took place all over the world. Thus, I have been mostly elsewhere for a long time and needed to find a way to deal with it. First, I always take interest and pride in what I am doing. If you find what you’re doing to be challenging and worthwhile, it keeps you engaged and mentally fit. Second, I keep in touch with friends and family using technology: phone, email, text and Skype. We keep a family Skype site open, and treat it like a living room, no agenda, where everyone just comments and chats and acts as if we were physically together. Finally, a routine of exercise and work and play is grounding, even in orbit. I deliberately balance all three, and make time for each if possible, every day.

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“A clearer view of Vancouver on a sunny day — can clearly see the ferry terminal, airport and many boats in the Inlet.” Photo: Chris Hadfield, NASA

Can Geo: What goes through your mind as you look down on Canada from the ISS every 90 minutes?
CH: To float by the window and see our country pour by in a few minutes makes me very emotional. It is literally having your life flash before your eyes. The places I have been, the Canadians I have met, the experiences I have had, all flow together in one soaring rush. Snippets of memory pop in and out, triggered by so many landmarks passing at 8 km/sec. And at the end of each pass, as we cross the coast of the Maritimes and head out over the Atlantic, a sense of oneness fills me up, a feeling of a vast place shared by good people. Like I could have landed anywhere in Canada, walked up to a stranger and been instant friends. A land full of people with a shared secret of how to live this life. A good place to be from, Canada. It leaves me smiling and at peace, every time.

In addition to his responsibilities onboard the ISS, Hadfield has been composing music with the Barenaked Ladies’ Ed Robertson. Find Chris Hadfield and the Canadian Space Agency on Twitter. Follow @CanGeo for regular updates from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Canadian Geographic, Can Geo Travel, Photo Club and Géographica.

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“Lava Carbuncle — an ancient intrusion of tough, hard rock in southwestern Africa. Quite likely also Namibia.” Photo: Chris Hadfield, NASA
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“Limassol, Cyrpus — facing south to the sea.” Photo: Chris Hadfield, NASA

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