Imagine pulling on your socks and underwear one morning and realizing that when you take them off at the end of the day, you won’t be doing it on Earth.
Of all the thoughts to float through a man’s mind on the morning of his first trip into space, it’s a strange one to have, but Col. Chris Hadfield uses the example to illustrate that when an astronaut climbs aboard a rocket ship to blast off from Earth it happens on a day like any other.
Except, if you’re Chris Hadfield, it’s 1995 and the day that has been the focal point of your life since you were nine years old — and watched in awe as Neil Armstrong took his first steps onto the surface of the moon — has finally arrived.
And it’s the day you approach a spaceport and see the shuttle Atlantis in the distance — the ship that’s going to carry you off the planet to the Russian space station, Mir.
It’s also the day that you’ll climb awkwardly into the vehicle, which is sitting on its tail and allow yourself to be strapped into cramped space above what is essentially a giant bomb.
Then, stuffed into an uncomfortable, oversized suit and wearing a diaper, you wait, because there are still two hours to go until launch.
“What do you do?” he asks.
“Test the diaper,” someone yells from the audience.
Good answer, he laughs.
But, in fact, says Hadfield, you nap.
As launch time approaches, you begin to realize this could actually happen, and the nine-year-old inside you gets really excited.
Once the solid rocket boosters begin their uncontrolled burn there’s no turning back — you’re thrown back in your seat like you’re in a dragster.
“You look out your window, and there goes home,” he says.
The “wild, wild ride” lasts for eight minutes and 42 seconds. Then the engines shut off, and you’re weightless.
“It’s a really cool feeling,” says Hadfield. “I recommend it.”
Backed by a spray of stars on a pitch black curtain, Hadfield stepped onto the stage at Langley’s Coast Hotel on Friday morning, strumming his guitar as he joined in with a video of himself and Ed Robertson of the Bare Naked Ladies, performing Is Somebody Singing.
Among the lyrics of the song, co-written by the two men, are the lines: “That ball of blue houses everybody anybody ever knew” and “You can’t make out borders from up here.”
The message, Hadfield told the crowd of more than 600 members of the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board who attended the Langley conference where he spoke last week, is that we’re all in this together.
“Earth is a space station and we are not passengers — we’re crew.”
On Dec. 19, 2012, Hadfield left Earth aboard Russian Soyuz capsule, traveling to the International Space Station, which is being constructed and operated by 15 nations — many of which have been mortal enemies during his lifetime.
As a pilot in the RCAF, Hadfield, now 54, was once charged with intercepting Soviet bombers before they could release their missiles against North American targets.
But for the past 13 years, humans have been able to live continually in space because of co-operation between nations and their combined goal of exploring the universe, said Hadfield.
The next step, he believes, will be the colonization of the moon — but not for another generation or two.
“It’s a natural extension of human exploration as we’ve done on the surface.”
It’s no longer a race, he said.
Despite that assertion, Hadfield has managed to leave the pack in his space dust in one area, at least — the use of social media.
With one million followers on Twitter and more than half a million likes on Facebook, Hadfield’s photos, zero-gravity demonstrations and personal reflections have made space more accessible to millions of Earthlings who will never travel above 40,000 feet in their lifetime.
During Hadfield’s mission, which ended last May, he regularly tweeted out images of the planet and solar system, working with his son, Evan, to provide the shots his followers wanted to see — from an ISS-eye view of their home town to an erupting Mt. Etna.
Hadfield’s famous sung-in-space version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity is one more example of what has made him, arguably, the most famous Canadian astronaut in the history of the nation’s space program.
But it was a program that didn’t even exist when the nine-year-old from Southern Ontario determined that he would one day walk on the moon.
Speaking for an hour, before signing more than 100 copies of his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield explained that he spent the years leading up to his first spaceflight preparing for an event which, deep down, he never really believed would happen.
First of all, Canada had no space program at the time. And, of course, there was no handbook on how to become an astronaut, nor any place to go and train for his chosen career. So young Chris modeled his life on what he thought an astronaut would do. He worked to keep himself physically fit, pursued a top academic education and learned to fly with the air cadets.
He did everything he could think of to make himself a prime candidate in case the opportunity to travel into space ever presented itself.
Through it all, Hadfield continually visualized failure.
While popular thinking suggests a person should visualize the success they want to achieve, Hadfield insists it is far more productive to think about everything that can possibly go wrong.
When things screw up, as they inevitably will, it’s better to have thought about the worst that could happen and to have prepared for it, he said.
“Relentlessly promoting improved competence among the group is the only way to survive on a space ship,” said Hadfield.
“The more you can encourage competence and mutual understanding in the people around you, the better off you are.”
The same is true here on Earth, he said.
Accept failure, but don’t define yourself by it, he added.
At nine, Hadfield’s goal was to walk on the moon. By that standard, he said, he is a failure.
But today, he has been into space three times, he’s orbited the planet 2,500 times (at a rate of 16 revolutions per day) and taken 45,000 photos in the process (because who wouldn’t?).
He was the first Canadian to walk in space and the first to command the ISS, which he did last spring.
As he closed his presentation, Hadfield showed footage of his capsule crash landing on a plain in Kazakhstan, blown sideways by strong winds and rolling along the ground.
Accompanied by photos flashing on two big screens, he described the first few minutes of his return to Earth this way:
The door of the capsule opens, a pair of arms reaches in, pulls you out and plunks you into a deck chair. Randomly, someone hands you an apple.
You’re as dizzy and nauseated as you’ve ever been. You want to throw up and lie down, but there are cameras everywhere.
That’s what you want to do.
But you’re a Canadian, says Hadfield, so instead, you give a big thumbs up, and you smile.