Astronaut Chris Hadfield became the unofficial ambassador of science to the universe in 2013 when he took command of the International Space Station and gained international attention for using social media and technology to spread knowledge and have conversations from space.
A little more than two years later and the retired Canadian astronaut is still busy connecting with students to share his wealth of knowledge and his experiences from outer space. Our Senior School was lucky to host Cmdr. Hadfield on Monday for a Skype chat that touched on his time aboard the ISS, the future of space travel, music, education and scientific development.
Here are some of the insightful questions posed by SMUS students, along with condensed versions of his answers:
When you saw the Earth from outer space what were your feelings?
Initially, it’s a tremendous sense of wonder, a sense of awe and respect. The world is just so consistently gorgeous and spectacularly beautiful. It’s like the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever seen … one of those beautiful sunsets where the light is streaming up through the clouds and it’s just magnificent, and everything else in the day pales in comparison – that’s the feeling all the time from a space ship ’cause you can see thousands of kilometres. There’s a magnificence of beauty. It’s almost a demand of respect.
What was the most surprising impact of human activity that you could see from the ISS?
Well there are good surprises and there are bad surprises, and probably the most good surprise was the beauty of the lights at night of the cities of the world. It’s gorgeous, it’s almost like the world is illuminating with diamonds. It’s lovely to see parts of the world that are lit. But most of the world, almost the entire world, is dark. The cities take up a very small place. The worst surprise of human influence to see was the Aral Sea – the fourth biggest sea on Earth, which in the time that I flew in space the last 25 years it’s completely dried up. We drained and destroyed the fourth biggest sea on Earth – in between Russia and Kazakhstan, that was purely human climate change.
What are your thoughts on the prospect of Mars as a viable place to support human civilization with projects like the Mars One, that involves sending untrained people into space? And what do you think is the effect of the growing involvement of private companies pursuing different projects in space?
At the outset you need to recognize Mars One is not a project. There are no vehicles, there’s no rocket ships, there are no space suits, it’s just a thought, it’s just an idea. Mars One is not taking anybody anywhere. I think people think that just because someone posed a question on the Internet, “Would you go to Mars one way?” and then they got people to write back that somehow that’s going to make spaceflight happen, and it’s not. You actually have to do the work, and that’s what I’ve been doing the last 30 years, is the work, trying to make spaceships exist, trying to make them safer, what do we learn from the Columbia accident, how do you make spaceships better after that? And then how can we take all this huge government investment and now start turning it over to commercial entities so that they can start to profit from it, just like we did with ships and then with rail travel and then with air travel, where it takes invention and huge government investment to make the technology viable and safe, and then it starts to become profitable and then you turn it over to private industry, and we’re just at the cusp of space flight now. It’s probably still too early to have anyone but the government be the main customer, but it’s starting with what Richard Branson is doing and what Elon Musk is doing and what Boeing is doing for the space station and what Jeff Bezos is doing – they’re looking for opportunities to privatize, and I’m all for it. They’re actually taking the technology that exists and then testing it, advancing and trying it out, and pushing the limits. They’re actually doing the hard work to make private space flight possible.
In your opinion, what part should music play in the development of young minds?
It’s almost the other way around – you can’t help but have music play a part in the development of young minds. Music is innate. There’s all sorts of examples on YouTube of watching little kids being exposed to music – a nine-month old, they don’t know anything about anything; they don’t know language, they don’t know anything about the world, they just recently discovered their own fingers, and yet if you played them music, it changes their physiology, it strikes right to the very core of who they are. Musical instruments are some of the oldest human remains we found in caves from 40,000 years ago, and so music is absolutely fundamental to us as human beings. So the real question then is, ‘how do we incorporate music, by choice, into our own lives or when set up organizations, how do we incorporate music into them?’ It would be great if every school could have music in every classroom, or when you’re trying to teach mathematics you could teach it with not just symbols, but also teach it using music, you could probably remember some of the stuff more clearly if it was taught to you with a theme song. In fact, I wrote and recorded a whole album while I was up in the space station, and that album’s going to be coming out in the late summer or early fall, and we’re going to donate all the profits of that to music education, because I think it’s really important.
Who was your most influential teacher and why?
My parents were my most influential teachers, of course, because of the example that they set and the environment that they built. I guess the fundamental nature of what is normal, I got from my parents. What’s a normal level of curiosity? What’s a normal way to behave about your own curiosity? What should you expect from yourself? How much work should you do? All of that I learned from my parents. So I think that for almost everyone, the people you spend most of your time with become your biggest teachers.
What do you think will be the importance of scientific technology and innovation in the future?
It’s totally up to us, right? We could choose to live like cavewomen and cavemen if we wanted. That’s kind of the reason for science and technology; why bother doing any of this, why set up the structure of civilization? The fundamental purpose of it is to raise the standard of living to the point where you want it to be, hopefully to the point where you can free up your mind to achieve your maximum potential. To me, that is the whole purpose – so that everyone’s not just involved in subsistence living, where it’s a daily struggle just to get enough food to eat, but where maybe there’s enough comfort that you could start to truly invent and use the gifts you were born with; the artists among us, the geniuses and all of the mental power that we have, and for me that’s what science and technology is all about,
Do you think the last 200 years of scientific development has had a positive impact or a more negative impact on that quality of life you talked about?
Immensely positive. We have never fed as many people on Earth as we have today. Our level of understanding is so hugely out of script from where we were a couple hundred years ago. The average length of life, the ability to experience joy in a long and natural life. But it’s just not a sustainable phase. It’s in a rapidly developing phase, and that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s kind of natural. The question is ‘What do we do next and how do we choose to sustain it or not?’ If you could come on board a space ship with me, and go around the world 100 times, you would see the immensity of the planet, you could see the patience and the age of the planet, the beauty of it, the resilience of it. Everyone wants their 75 years on Earth to be the most significant ever, and one of the nice ways to have your time be significant is to think it’s the last 75 years of the planet. I think it’s better to have a longer term view and recognize the Earth has been through some horrific things in the last 4.5 billion years. We’re just starting to get a sense of the true nature of time, and just recently we’re starting to come up with inventions that allow us to have a standard of living and an opportunity for introspection that we’ve never had in the past. Coming back from space, I’m optimistic – and I’ll always be that way.
(photos by Kent Leahy-Trill and ChrisHadfield.ca)