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Ten Minutes with Col. Hadfield

19 March 2015

Col. Chris Hadfield, former Canadian astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, visited TRIUMF early this rainy Vancouver morning. As part of his first trip to our laboratory, Col. Hadfield kindly indulged us in answering a few questions before meeting with laboratory staff and taking a tour of our facilities.

The interview questions below were inspired by members of the TRIUMF staff who were all invited to send questions to the Communications Team.  Most  questions were centered around Col. Hadfield's experience on the International Space Station, his general philosophy of space exploration, and social media.

Full audio clips are listed under each question, along with an exerpt of Col. Hadfield's response.

A full PDF transcription of the interview is available. Photos from the tour are available on flickr.

Five Questions with Hadfield: solar cycles, pirates, and the edge of exploration.

1. What was the most unexpected thing that you encountered while on the space station?

Hadfield: (...) We really hate the unexpected. We try to live our lives and train such that even though it doesn’t happen, we expect that it might. I was an astronaut for 21 years and I trained for 21 years for an unbelievably long list of things that could happen that never did. So, when you ask what is the most unexpected thing that happened… everything was sort of expected!

Probably the most egregious [event] was: four days before I came home from my third space flight, the space station started spewing liquid ammonia out into the universe with a leak, and we had to respond with an emergency space walk on one day’s notice to go fix that in order to save the station and everything on board. But, it’s not like it had never occurred to us that there was going to be a breakdown that we had to go do a spacewalk for. We had basically been preparing for that our entire professional careers. That’s why I studied Russian for 20 years, so that day, working with Pawel Winogradow, I could help Pawel get one of the guys suited up to go outside. You could say it was unexpected, but really it was more like the actual manifestation of what happened as opposed to something that we never thought would happen. There’s a difference. There are thousands of things that we were immensely trained for that didn't happen.

2. As a nuclear and particle physics lab, we constantly monitor radiation levels and we wear dosimeters – as you’ll see on your tour. What was your radiation exposure for the time you spent in space?

Hadfield: It very much depends on the solar cycle. (...) The world gets a little bit warmer when the sun is at its maximum cycle, and so the Earth's atmosphere expands a little, it gets a little bit bigger. When the atmosphere is a little bit bigger, we actually have a different level of radiation and a different drag on the spaceship. And when the atmosphere is smaller, it's a different environment for us. (...) We live by OSHA rules: you can’t get more than a 3% increase of getting cancer based on the radiation – just like any radiation worker – within your entire astronaut career. Someone told me it was like having one low-level X-ray a day for the whole time up there, whether that’s an accurate quantification or not. (...) It's kind of a big, complex thing. In my case, it wasn’t anywhere near limiting. I could easily have flown again if the only variable was radiation dosage."

Melissa: We sometimes have trouble describing the radiation quantification for the public, too. We might put it on the scale of bananas or something so that people understand the relative impact. It is a big topic.

Hadfield: Well, just to be specific, the premenopausal female astronauts, because their reproductive systems are the most susceptible to cancers as a result of ionizing radiation, are the ones who have the most restrictive rules on them flying in space. They stand the highest risk of reaching their 3% limit as a result of space flight.

3. It's been about 40 years since humans travelled beyond low earth orbit. Do you think we should fly to the Moon again before trying to reach Mars? Or, do you think another different type of space mission should take priority?

Hadfield: The pattern of exploration is ancient; it’s fundamental. We live somewhere for a while, and then, for whatever reason, some of us get dissatisfied with living there. You know? Someone says, “I think we should live over there!” And so, they send out a probe.

Fifty thousand years ago, your probe would be your oldest child. You’d say, “Go walk three days that way, look and come back. Tell us if there’s a place to move, because this village is getting too crowded, or we’ve eaten all the apples, or whatever.” The probe comes back and says, “No, that’s a terrible place. The oasis is polluted,” or “Yes, a lush valley, let’s go there.” (...) If it looks to be a place that is desirable for habitation, we start moving there. 

All we’ve really done in space exploration has been the probing phase. Even human trips to the Moon - 12 men walked on the moon - that was just sending a probe, sending someone to go look. In November 2000, we started moving to space. (...) That was our first move away from home.

So, where do we go next?

It’s obvious we should go to the moon next. The moon is only three days away. We have an enormous number of things we have to learn and prove in order to keep the level of safety anywhere near accessible, and we know very little about the Moon. And we sure don’t know much about living on another planet. 

If you decided, “Let’s just skip the Moon and go to Mars!” because it sounds sort of somehow weirdly romantic and exciting, you’re all going to die. We don't know what we’re doing and we don’t know what we don’t know. The worst part is, as soon as you’ve fired your engines to go to Mars, you can’t turn around! The only way to come back is to go six or seven months all the way to Mars, and sling around Mars to use its gravity to turn you around. If you got anything wrong, everybody’s dead.

There’s no big rush, right? If the Earth were somehow poisonous to us –  like if we knew that a huge asteroid was going to hit or the Yellowstone Caldera suddenly started exploding and most of the world became uninhabitable – then we’d have some urgency (and) we’d be willing to take a higher risk. Mars is more habitable than the Moon but there’s no great urgency. (...) I think during your lifetimes, we’ll have permanent habitation sites on the Moon, just like in Antarctica. After that, we’ll have invented enough stuff, figured it out, we’ll have come up with new engines, and we’ll go to Mars. There’s a lot of popular media stuff right now about Mars. But it’s all just (hype); it’s not based in reality.

Jacqueline: So I guess that answers the next question about whether or not you would go to Mars if you had the chance.

Hadfield: See, that’s a little bit of a specious question, because of course I would! But my immediate question is: in what? Astronauts don’t go for rides. I helped design the cockpit of the space shuttle in the ‘90’s. I helped change procedures in the Russian Soyuz even after it had flown many times. We help design spaceships. We definitely design missions. We are absolutely, integrally involved in making space flight possible. We don't just take a few classes and get on a space ship and go, “Hey, tell me when we’re there!” That’s not how it works.

So it’s easy to say “Oh yeah, I’d love to go to Mars!” but the real question is “in what?” And how does the close-up environmental system work? How does your radiation protection work? How do we navigate? And – a million things! That’s the actual quest. I would love to be involved in how to safely go to Mars. But there’s nobody going to Mars, not for a long time.

4. In training to become an astronaut you had to learn many different topics and gain many skills so we were wondering what topic do you wish you knew more about?


Hadfield: [long pause] Human nature. It’s the most complex thing. On board the spaceship, we had people from different languages, cultures, religions,  backgrounds and a fundamental difference in a sense of normal, just because of how they were raised and taught. There are huge ranges of what’s normal for people.

All of that becomes magnified in its importance when there are six of you separated from the other seven billion. How to properly take care of people, it's one of the big problems we need to solve as we do these long duration exploration missions as well. You can’t run it like a lot of sailing ships of the past, with an absolutely brutal chain of command, where you could kill parts of your crew if they were misbehaving with a strict iron hand. That won’t work for a spaceship. So how do you build and blend and then maintain the psychological heath of a small group of people in extremely difficult circumstances who are separated for a long time? It's something I’ve studied and worked on for a long time. The machinery is complicated but it’s way simpler than the people. I think that’s the part that demands the most attention…

And particle physics!

5. While you were up in space, you were famous for taking beautiful photos and sharing them on Twitter.  What advice do you have for scientists who want to use social media as an outreach tool, especially when they are busy with a space mission or a PhD thesis?


Hadfield: Social media is an immensely powerful communications tool that we don’t understand yet. To me, social media and Internet connectivity is as significant an invention as the Gutenberg printing press, or the telephone. It’s that significant an invention. 

By 2020, I’ve heard fairly credible predictions that 80% of the world will be holding a smart phone in their hand within five years. (...) Both Elon Musk with SpaceX and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic are trying to come up with technologies that will drop the cost of launch by 2 orders of magnitude – by a hundred times cheaper. If they can do that, we can put cheap little throwaway communications satellites in low earth orbit, a constellation of them, so that anybody in the world who is holding one of these smart phones, instead of having to rely on their local power source or oppressive government or Wi-Fi or whatever, can talk to anybody in the world. That is huge.

So, how do we use that tool? (...) Social media is an unprecedented way to share the experience of being human with anybody else who wants to share it with you. That’s what it is. It’s not a place to plot graphs, or to say “Check out ___!” Every time I read something that starts with the words “Check out__!” I don’t. Because obviously it's just someone blaring through a megaphone.

Instead, if something delights you, or makes you laugh, or makes you cry, or surprises you, or is beautiful, or is ugly, share it. You’ll probably go home tonight and if something really funny or odd or human happened it today, you might mention it to somebody. Or you might mention it to somebody at lunch. But, you can mention it to the whole world. Then the world has the choice of participating or not. That’s what social media is the best at. It’s especially prevalent for people that are on the edge of exploration, whether it’s an astronaut or a deep-sea diver, or a physicist, because they are right on the edge of human understanding.

If it’s cute and funny and interesting and sad, and it brings out an emotional reaction in you, then it will in other people, so say why. Or show what it was, and post it so that it catches your attention, so [your post] it’s a picture that you weren’t expecting, and then a comment that makes you think about the picture, so that you bounce back and forth at least three times. So that you go from the idea, to the image, to the idea, and then it makes you look off into the distance and go, “huh.” [See photo on right] That’s what you’re trying to share with the world.  It [social media] becomes so inclusionary, and then it’s like this enormous hive of intelligence where you don’t have to learn everything on your own in a dark room, but you can piggyback on other people’s knowledge. It’s hugely powerful.

We thank Col. Chris Hadfield for his visit to our lab to learn more about the Canadian physics community and for sharing his experiences and insights with us. The full transcribed interview is available here. See Hadfield’s moustache explore TRIUMF on our flickr. More photos to be uploaded in the coming days. 

– by Jacqueline Wightman and Melissa Baluk