Saturday 17 March 2018

Boldly going where no spaceman has gone before

Canadian Chris Hadfield tells John Meagher that his new ­children's book is about confronting fear - something the former astronaut, with several space missions under his belt, is intimately acquainted with

Inspirational: Astronaut Chris Hadfied on a recent visit to Dublin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Inspirational: Astronaut Chris Hadfied on a recent visit to Dublin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Chris Hadfield ahead of his last space mission to the ISS in 2012

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's seminal book on the space race, he writes about the extraordinary bravery required to be an astronaut. The risk of death was very real during the period covered - the 1950s and 60s - and that danger was still ever-present when Chris Hadfield was cutting his teeth as an astronaut.

"The risk of dying on my first flight was one in 38 in the first eight minutes and 40 seconds," 57-year-old Hadfield says of that maiden voyage on the space shuttle. "Imagine if every 38 pedestrians walking by died and they knew they were going to? We didn't know that statistic at the time - it's looking back on the whole Shuttle programme - but we were aware that the risk of death was always there. And that statistic is just for those first minutes of the flight - it doesn't account for the rest of it."

Commander Hadfield, who retired in 2013, became one of the most famous astronaut of his generation, thanks to his stunning photos of earth, taken from the International Space Station (ISS) and tweeted with simple but profound words.

The Canadian is softly spoken and strikingly humble, but when he talks about the rigorous selection process required to be an astronaut, it's hard not to think of him and his type as superhuman. Not only are would-be space explorers required to have supreme intelligence and exceptional fitness in their armoury, they also have to have the steeliest of minds. You'd need that to be willing to sit in the cockpit of a rocket capable of generating 80 million horsepower, or to perch on the outside of the space station, carrying out essential repairs, and know that earth is 400km below you.

Hadfield is in Dublin to talk about his latest enterprise, The Darkest Dark, a children's book aimed at especially young kids. Since retiring, he has busied himself with many projects and he seems to have nailed the business of children's writer, if the delighted response of my four and two-year-old daughters to his lavishly illustrated book is anything to go by.

"The book is about confronting the fear," he says. "Life is essentially like learning to ride a bike for the first time. There's wonder and worth in doing the things that scare you."

For inspiration, Hadfield looked back to the hopes and fears of his own childhood. The story centres on the 1969 moon landing, an event that had huge resonance for the then nine-year-old.

"It was the personification of dreams," he says, "the impossible becoming real. It was giving yourself a quest that was far better than anything you could imagine.

"You can judge it through the lens of history, it's hard to argue that there was anything else in the 20th Century that was greater, technologically, than it. The moon landing humanised the impossible, it turned a comic book into a real choice."

That summer was the moment he decided he would do everything he could to be an astronaut, even though back then no Canadian had ever been to space.

Years later, he would find himself working with some of the giant names of space exploration. "John Young was there when I was. He walked on the moon and he did that first flight on the Shuttle. I even shared an office with him for a while. And I got to know John Glenn [who died in late 2016, aged 95]. He fought in World War II and in Korea and was married for 73 years. To me, he was a great American - I don't say those two words together lightly."

Hadfield says he couldn't help but feel starstruck on occasion. "I felt like an imposter," he says with a chuckle. "But to have gotten to know them and sat on the same seats and faced the same issues was something else."

Hadfield was a fighter pilot in the Canadian Air Force and still hoping to make it to Nasa's test-pilot programme when the Challenger space shuttle disaster happened in January 1986. "They killed that crew through poor decision-making and bad design," he says. "Same in '03 with the Columbia crew. In retrospect, that's easy to say - but it has to be said."

Had he not been accepted to 'astronaut school', Hadfield planned to leave the F18s behind and become a commercial airline pilot. It was a career path chosen by his father and two brothers. But he was admitted to the nascent Canadian Space Agency and, he says, with a wry grin, that's when the really hard work began. He finally got to go to space in 1995 on the fourth expedition of the US-Russian Shuttle-Mir programme.

While technology has improved enormously since Apollo 11 went to the moon 48 years ago, there's still enormous difficultly in taking a manned craft from earth, putting it into space and getting it and its crew home again.

"The part of first flying a spaceship that most people miss is what an incredibly complex a task it is," he says. "What we're doing is just barely possible. We did it [launch the space shuttle] 135 times in a row and we got it wrong twice. We killed over a dozen people. But the other 133 occasions, we did it right every single time."

It was on his last mission to the ISS that he became a Twitter sensation. His keen photographic eye helped grab some wonderful pictures of earth, including those of Ireland - and Dublin. "Looking at Ireland from that vantage point, you could see on a clear day just how the claw of the glaciers had wrought the land that's there today."

The ISS circumnavigates the globe every 90 minutes and he says he never, ever got bored of the god-like view. "It's impossible to look at this extraordinary planet and not think of the bigger picture."

Hadfield says he doesn't miss his astronaut days. "I don't look back," he says, simply. "I really enjoyed how privileged I was to have had those opportunities, but now I want to see what the rest of my life has in store."

The Darkest Dark is out now. Unique Lives: an Audience with Chris Hadfield is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on January 22

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