The man who dared to do the impossible
David Bowie and an historic moon landing were irresistible
HE’S one of the coolest astronauts to ever walk in space and the man who breathed new life into a rock classic. Chris Hadfield was already making a name for himself on social media, chronicling life aboard the International Space Station. Then, on May 12, 2013, he released a cover version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the ISS and became a superstar.
More than 36 million people have viewed the Canadian astronaut’s YouTube performance but there was one review that stunned him. Bowie himself labelled Hadfield’s Space Oddity the “most poignant version ever created” in a comment on his Facebook page and even helped Hadfield through the legal complications involved in posting the song on YouTube (the singer’s publisher, rather than Bowie himself, owned the rights to the song).
“He was so gracious,” Hadfield says.
“We corresponded back and forth but I never met him, although I wish I had. I just count myself lucky to have got to know him a little bit.”
Getting permission to post the video was not the only problem to overcome – Hadfield had to relearn how to play guitar in zero gravity.
“It is a little hard to play up there because there is nothing to hold the guitar in place,” he says. “On Earth, gravity helps suspend it from the strap around your neck, or gravity pushes the guitar down on to your knee so it’s stable, but without gravity there is nothing to hold the guitar stable.
“So as soon as you move your left hand up and down the fret board, the guitar just takes off.”
Bowie originally released the single in July 1969, a week before the moon landing – a pivotal moment for one little Canadian boy.
Hadfield was a month shy of his 10th birthday and the sight of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Sea of Tranquillity brought a profound realisation.
“The recognition that impossible things can happen, that’s a big thing to realise,” he says.
“Not impossible like winning lotto but if you give yourself an outlandish goal and work very hard and co-operate with a lot of people to enable something to happen – that’s a really interesting thing to learn.”
So, despite being a citizen of a country without a space program, the young Hadfield was determined to become an astronaut.
And he did. He became the first Canadian to walk in space, flew two space shuttle missions and served a six-month stint as commander of the International Space Station. He spent a total of 166 days in space and, by his own count, has been around the world some 2600 times. That time in space has given him a rare perspective.
“You get a permanent, accurate and indelible understanding of the world itself – the actual silent, ancient, implacable beauty of our planet,” he says. “So it makes you eternally optimistic, the toughness and the age and the self-rebuilding nature of our planet and how lucky and unique we are and the fact it is undeniably one place – you can go around the whole thing in 90 minutes, so how big can it be?”
The 57-year-old has long been keen to share his commitment to impossible dreams and has done so on speaking tours (he will visit Australia again in August), in his two books for adults and now a beautifully illustrated children’s picture book called The Darkest Dark. The autobiographical work follows a young Chris, who’s afraid of aliens but determined to become an astronaut.
There’s a real sense of authenticity of place in the book. The neighbour’s holiday house, where Hadfield watched the moon landing, still stands and he was able to take the illustrators, Eric and Terry Fan, to see it. The Hadfields’ cottage is still there, too, right down to the original wallpaper.
Facing and knowing your fears is a core theme of the book, published this week.
“It is normal to be afraid, that’s an indicator to yourself that you don’t have enough skills yet,” Hadfield says.
“So it is okay to be afraid. The question is what you do with that fear – how do you face up to risk and danger without the basic reaction of just being fearful? How do you treat it some other way, which is a valuable lesson for a five-year-old but also a 45-year-old.”
Hadfield’s lessons are there for all now in his books but there is one young person who will have the best introduction to them.
His baby granddaughter Eleanor has already had her first lesson. “I have sat her on my lap and read her The Darkest Dark,” Hadfield says.
“To have lived an experience and to have put it into a book and to be able to sit your own granddaughter on your lap and read it to her might be the biggest treat of all.”
◗ Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is coming to Australia in August.
◗ Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield with granddaughter Eleanor.