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Chris Hadfield with guitar
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is arguably best-known for his orbital rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Bowie gave his approval for Hadfield’s performance. (Credit: CSA)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield says he wanted to be an astronaut ever since he was a kid – but he had to get over one big problem: Outer space is dark. “Like really, really dark,” he said.

“I was afraid of the dark, so it made me feel sort of daunted,” Hadfield recalled Tuesday night during a talk at Town Hall Seattle.

Recognizing and overcoming that kind of fear is the focus of Hadfield’s totally biographical storybook for kids, titled “The Darkest Dark.” During Tuesday’s first official book-tour stop, Hadfield wowed the crowd with a reading, plus an airing of a song that ties in with the book. Then he took questions.

One of the high points came when a young boy clad in a spacesuit costume came up on stage to ask a question: How high can you jump in space? Hadfield and the boy took turns jumping, and figuring out how high the jump would have been in Mars’ one-third gravity, or the moon’s one-sixth gravity.

Then Hadfield explained that a jump off the side of a spaceship in zero gravity might never end. “You can jump forever,” he told the boy. Hadfield waited several beats to let that sink in, and then added: “So you want to be careful.”

That got a laugh from the kids as well as the grown-ups who filled Town Hall’s auditorium.

Hadfield’s book is aimed helping youngsters put their own fears in perspective. “Sometimes we let fear stop us from [experiencing] a whole swath of life that’s available,” Hadfield explained.

The realization that there was cosmic wonder in the “darkest dark” of space gave the young Hadfield an incentive to overcome his own fears in a dark bedroom.

Eventually, Hadfield earned an engineering degree, served as a military test pilot and became an astronaut. In 2001, Hadfield became the first Canadian to go on a spacewalk. That encounter with the darkest dark turned out to be “the most magical moment” of his astronaut experience, he said.

Today Hadfield is no stranger to the dark, and no stranger to the limelight. He’s been on three space missions, in 1995, 2001 and 2012-2013. During his last tour of duty, which included a turn as the International Space Station’s commander, Hadfield recorded a series of space videos that went viral.

The biggest hit was his orbital rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which Hadfield revised to provide a happy ending. The music video been played on YouTube alone more than 32 million times since it went up three years ago.

 

Hadfield, an accomplished guitarist and singer, said the song started out as merely a personal project, but his son persuaded him to do the full video treatment – which required some pretty complicated orbital production, plus Bowie’s go-ahead.

“Bowie said it was the most poignant version of the song ever done. … It put a great big smile on his face in the last years of his life,” Hadfield said. “To me, that was the best part of it.”

Months after returning to Earth, Hadfield announced his retirement from the Canadian Space Agency. Today he has his hands full with media projects and educational tours.

The Darkest Dark
“The Darkest Dark” is published by Little, Brown and Company, with illustrations by the Fan Brothers.

In addition to “The Darkest Dark,” he’s written a book for all ages called “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” His pictures from space are featured in a coffee-table book, “You Are Here.” He also has a music album titled “Space Sessions: Songs From a Tin Can.”

And there’s more to come: Hadfield has just returned from an icebreaker expedition through the High Arctic with a team of filmmakers and artists. The experiences that were documented during the expedition will be turned into a science-based variety show to be presented on stage and online.

It sounds like a daunting schedule, but maybe nothing seems all that daunting after you venture into the darkest dark. So what’s Hadfield’s secret? He laid out four key qualifications for becoming an astronaut, which arguably could apply to achieving any life goal:

  • “You need an absolute burning desire … that this is important to you.”
  • “You need to take care of your body, because you have to fit into your spacesuit.”
  • “If you’re going to hire an astronaut, you want someone who has proven they can learn really complicated things.” Having an advanced degree helps, Hadfield said.
  • “We want people who have a proven ability to make good decisions.”

Hadfield said that last point is why the people in charge of astronaut selection process tend to favor physicians and other professionals who have faced life-or-death decisions.

“We hire test pilots,” he said, “because the test pilots who made bad decisions are all dead.”

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