Since blasting off in December 2012, astronaut Colonel Chris Hadfield has become a worldwide sensation, harnessing the power of social media to make outer space accessible to millions and infusing a sense of wonder into the collective consciousness not felt since man first walked on the moon.
He was sitting on the back of a neighbour’s couch in Sarnia, Ont., watching Neil Armstrong take those famous first steps on July 20, 1969, when Hadfield decided he was going to be an astronaut when he grew up.
“Me and a million other kids,” says Hadfield, who was born in 1959, making him a child of the classic space age. “I wasn’t quite 10 when they walked on the moon, but it was a seminal moment in my life.”
Having always been interested in the inner workings of the world around him, Hadfield admits he was by nature a curious child. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny the impact the Apollo 11 mission had on his young mind.
“If you want to show a young person the wonderful things that can result when you apply the latest in technology, science, engineering and math to make the impossible happen, it’s hard to be more inspiring than that,” recalls Hadfield, who 44 years later, is inspiring a whole new generation of future space travellers.
Called “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong” by the BBC, today Hadfield is the role model he himself was looking for as a young Canadian with dreams of travelling to space. An elite group, astronauts have a variety of backgrounds and experience. Some have degrees in engineering, physics or medicine, while others come directly from the military. With no Canadian examples to follow, Hadfield made his own way, having to find an entry point into what seemed like an impenetrable world.
“In the beginning, I had no idea how I was going to make it happen,” recalls Hadfield, who eventually decided to pursue a career as a military test pilot because it seemed like a logical first step. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering before being selected to attend U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He did post-graduate work at the University of Waterloo and the University of Tennessee before eventually being selected by the Canadian Space Agency as one of four new Canadian astronauts from a field of 5,330 applicants in June 1992.
“It really was an early commitment to my education – education in all its forms – that allowed me to do the things that I’ve done,” says Hadfield, looking back on his success in landing one of these coveted positions. And, while he admits the prospect of gazing down at Earth’s blue marble, conducting extraterrestrial research and perhaps eventually exploring new worlds is only available to a handful of candidates, for Hadfield that’s enough.
“Today, astronaut is a viable career choice as a Canadian,” says Hadfield, acknowledging the irresistible allure the position still holds for thousands of young people. “The odds are very small, but they aren’t zero. It’s a tough road but it’s definitely something that should be on the guidance counsellors’ list of Canadian professions that students can aspire to.”
He sees this as a natural progression of our country’s involvement in the space program.
“Canada’s maturation in this business is really just a straight, linear increase in trust and accomplishment over time,” explains Hadfield, citing examples of the country’s initial involvement, followed by the development of Canadarm, and leading most recently to his role as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station (ISS). “And with each step forward, we have opened the door a little more and helped remove some of the obstacles I faced when I was trying to get into the program.”
For him, these types of dreams are only made possible if people can see the bigger picture. “We all need to think beyond the horizons of our own street or school or town, so that we can think of ourselves on a larger stage,” says Hadfield, referring back to how watching the first man walk on the moon completely changed his perspective on what was possible.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do throughout my career is show the opportunities that do exist by helping put things on the horizon that people may not have even thought about,” says Hadfield. “The fact is that some little kid in some little town from Canada might walk on the moon one day, but you have to get their attention first.”
And that’s exactly what he did. For more than five months, Hadfield woke the world with a simple tweet: “Good morning, Earth.” And followers did not need to imagine the view from more than 423 km above Earth’s surface – Hadfield shared magnificent photos of our home planet to his nearly one million fans worldwide using social media.
“The space station is a terrific platform for sharing,” says Hadfield, adding that it’s our first permanent outpost and has been occupied since 2000. “Even amongst all the other news and noise of the world, our effort to leave our own planet resonates with people. And, as a result, millions of people around the world stop and pay attention.”
Hadfield has always worked hard to share his experiences in space with the rest of the world, but advances in technology have made that infinitely easier. Harnessing the power of social media to make his experience accessible to millions, his most recent mission was shared in real-time and helped infuse a sense of wonder into the collective consciousness not felt since man first walked on the moon.
“The immediacy granted by social media gave me a stronger voice than I’ve had on previous missions,” says Hadfield, whose moving photos and insightful tweets helped provide a new perspective on our world. “It’s really easy to be selfish if you’ve never been anywhere but home. It’s hard to have any regard for the rest of the world if it’s all just theoretical to you. But if you can see how similar the rest of the world is to how you are and how the actions you take today have impacts globally, it immediately changes your perspective, and as a result, your decision-making. The space station is a wonderful place to share that perspective and therefore to try and help people make better decisions.”
Although Hadfield returned to Earth in May 2013 and recently retired, he continues to bring the glory of space travel and the lessons he learned over a 35-year career to everyone he encounters and, on March 27, 2014, he will share his story with guests at the University of Lethbridge 2014 Calgary Alumni & Friends Dinner.
“At any university, including the U of L, there are so many opportunities available,” says Hadfield, who hopes events like the upcoming dinner will help motivate people to get involved. “Too many students go through their whole education without even realizing that those exchange programs, or scholarships, or electives even exist. It’s up to the alumni and friends of the University to not only ensure the opportunities are there but to ensure students know about them and take advantage of them.”
For Hadfield, events like this bring things full circle.
“As commander of the space station, it suddenly struck me that a nine-year-old chose my career. And, more importantly, it actually worked out,” says Hadfield with a laugh. “The odds were improbable but they would have been zero if at nine I hadn’t seen the impossible happen and made the choice to pursue it.”