Belfast-bound Chris Hadfield on inspiring a new generation of astronauts
'It's estimated that 110 billion people have lived on the Earth and only 550 have left it... I'm one of them'
Chris Hadfield has flown on three space missions, now he's about to land in Belfast. He tells Laurence White how as a 10-year-old boy he was inspired by Neil Armstrong's moon walk and why today's astronauts are better prepared for the emotional fall-out from their amazing journeys.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has had millions of hits on his social media video showing him singing a modified version of David Bowie's Space Oddity aboard the International Space Station circling earth at five miles a second.
But there is another song which more accurately defines the man who has been described as the one person since the moon walkers to reignite public interest in space flights and who is coming to Belfast next month as the headline personality at the NI Science Festival.
That song is The Impossible Dream, because the 58-year-old has always dreamt of doing things which were impossible.
He says: "When I was born in 1959 that was before anyone had ever flown into space. It wasn't hard to fly into space, it was impossible. It was the same with walking on the moon until that day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong emerged from the lunar module. Until that moment walking on the moon was impossible.
"Even though I couldn't explain it with any great clarity, that lunar walk made an imprint on me that impossible things happen as the result of an enormous amount of work in pursuit of something that up to then did not exist. I found that every enabling."
It was at that time the idea of becoming an astronaut formed in Chris' mind. Again it was an impossible dream. Canada did not even have an astronaut programme and he was reared on a corn farm in southern Ontario.
But that did not deter him. He was determined to gain some of the skills he believed he would need if the opportunity to become an astronaut ever arrived.
He learned to fly with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets while a teenager and later joined the Canadian Armed Forces, gaining an engineering degree, and then progressed to become one of the top test pilots on the North American continent, flying more than 70 aircraft including several experimental planes.
This was during the Cold War and Russia was engaged in regular sabre rattling, firing off cruise missiles and other provocative acts. At one point a young Chris intercepted a Russian bomber flying in Canadian airspace and forced it out.
He recalls: "That was a potentially high consequences day for someone aged just 25."
Chris' impossible dream came true in 1992 when he was accepted into the Canadian Astronaut Programme and he was to later fly three missions into space.
The first in 1995 saw astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantic dock with the Russian space station, Mir, the second in 2001 saw Chris become the first Canadian to walk in space when he helped install a robotic arm on the International Space Station and then in 2012 he spent 146 days aboard the ISS from where he sent back via social media thousands of images glimpsed through the windows of the station as well as videos of him inside.
It was an indication of the changing geo-political climate that Chris, only a few years after escorting the Russian bomber out of Canadian air space, worked in a Russian space centre and flew a Russian spaceship to the ISS on his final mission.
As one of the first astronauts to use social media in real time during a flight - his son co-ordinated his social media output - he became an internet sensation. Chris, two of whose children, a son and a daughter, studied medicine in Limerick and Dublin respectively, accepts that his social media output had a big impact.
"I am told that interest in space travel among young people in Ireland rose by 15% after my stay on the ISS," he says.
He was a frequent visitor to the Republic while his children were studying there and visited Belfast on one occasion, meeting the Lord Mayor and visiting the Titanic Centre during the publicity tour for one of his books.
He is looking forward to headlining the NI Science Festival in the city. "Science is a fundamental foundation of a successful civilisation", he says. "We could not live the way we do without the things we understand through scientific progress and research.
"Also a curious life is a more interesting life and science is organised curiosity, a way to codify our natural desire to explore and understand. It acknowledges that not just asking questions, but seeking answers is fundamental to human nature and to an interesting life.
"Being able to come to this event is a delight. Such things bring out the best in young people. If we raise the bar high enough there will always be people trying to get over it and having competition is a way to focus people's interests. Without competition people never push themselves to the limit of their capability."
He has acknowledged in the past that his wife Helene played a big part in his successful career. They met in secondary school and Chris says that her support was vital in his pursuit of life as an astronaut. However, he made it clear that she does not want to be defined as the wife of an astronaut, no matter how famous he is. Instead Helene, a former systems analyst, went back to college to become a chef and graduated top of her class. She later worked as a professional chef in Houston when Chris was stationed there with NASA.
The 12 men who walked on the moon found life back on Earth difficult to varying degrees. Some saw marriages break down, others succumbed for a time to alcoholism, some became reclusive and one or two had a religious epiphany.
Chris says that today astronauts are much better prepared for what is a life-changing experience. Part of that training is living in a submersible off the Florida coast where they experience varying degrees of weightlessness but can also simulate what being totally divorced from the Earth is really like.
"It could take up to half an hour to send a message from Mars to Earth", he says. "We can simulate that to prepare people for a time when they cannot summon assistance in real time.
"Those astronauts who went to the moon for example spent a relatively short time in space. The impetus was to be the first to make a lunar landing. The effort was to get the technology right rather than talk about the psychological effect of the space mission on the men involved. What they achieved had a greater inspiration impact than anything else that happened in the last century, inspiring a billion people around the world, including myself.
"But they did not prepare the astronauts for what it would mean to them on a spiritual or physical level. That is why I, like other astronauts, lived at the bottom on the ocean and trained for 21 years to be technically and philosophically prepared".
Chris has admitted that the loss of seven astronauts who died when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry to the earth's atmosphere in 2003 haunted him. He trained as a test pilot for a year with the commander of that flight, Rick Husband, but all seven were his friends.
In previous interviews he says that he was not surprised that people died on space flights - he had seen friends who were test pilots die in the course of their work.
But he says the important thing is to find out why an accident occurred and if it could have been prevented.
And he argues that the loss of the Columbia and the earlier Challenger disaster when that shuttle blew up seconds after take-off killing all on board did not change public opinion on the space programme.
"I have spoken to more than my fair share of schools and I never saw any change in the burning interest shown by those pupils from 1992 to today.
Chris, who runs a Skype programme with schools called Lunchpad - it happens at lunch time - says: "I think as we as individuals get older the reality of adult life colours our dreams and aspirations and we realise that we will never fly in space and we project that feeling onto others.
"But I would recommend any adult to talk to a classroom of 10-year-olds and see their enthusiasm. People do better when inspired by someone and pushed beyond their normal boundaries.
"It is estimated that 110 billion people have lived on the Earth since humans first appeared. Only 550 of us have left the Earth which is such a small number."
As a man who has been a test pilot, astronaut, musician, downhill ski racer and author he knows something about the power of inspiration and what it can lead to.
And when that inspiration was harnessed to digital photography and social media - technology which was not available when he first went into space - he was able to share that inspiration with others around the world. The next stop is Belfast.
An Evening with Colonel Chris Hadfield, SSE Arena Belfast, Thursday, February 15, 7.30pm-9pm, tickets £22.50 student; £38, £48, £95 VIP