The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles. Every 92 minutes, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars. The secret patterns of our planet are revealed: mountains bump up rudely from orderly plains, forests are green gashes edged with snow, rivers glint in the sunlight, twisting and turning like silvery worms. Continents splay themselves out whole, surrounded by islands sprinkled across the sea like delicate shards of shattered eggshells.
Floating in the airlock before my first spacewalk, I knew I was on the verge of even rarer beauty. To drift outside, fully immersed in the spectacle of the universe while holding onto a spaceship orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour—it was a moment I’d been dreaming of and working toward most of my life. But poised on the edge of the sublime, I faced a somewhat ridiculous dilemma: How best to get out there? The hatch was small and circular, but with all my tools strapped to my chest and a huge pack of oxygen tanks and electronics strapped onto my back, I was square. Square astronaut, round hole.
The cinematic moment I’d envisioned when I first became an astronaut, the one where the soundtrack swelled while I elegantly pushed off into the jet-black ink of infinite space, would not be happening. Instead, I’d have to wiggle out awkwardly and patiently, focused less on the magical than the mundane: trying to avoid snagging my spacesuit or getting snarled in my tether and presenting myself to the universe trussed up like a roped calf.
Gingerly, I pushed myself out headfirst to see the world in a way only a few dozen humans have, wearing a sturdy jetpack with its own thrusting system and joystick so that if all else failed, I could fire my thrusters, powered by a pressurized tank of nitrogen, and steer back to safety. A pinnacle of experience, an unexpected path.
Square astronaut, round hole. It’s the story of my life, really: trying to figure out how to get where I want to go when just getting out the door seems impossible. On paper, my career trajectory looks preordained: engineer, fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut. Typical path for someone in this line of work, straight as a ruler. But that’s not how it really was. There were hairpin curves and dead ends all the way along. I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut. I had to turn myself into one.
I started when I was 9 years old and my family was spending the summer at our cottage on Stag Island in Ontario. My dad, an airline pilot, was mostly away, flying, but my mom was there, reading in the cool shade of a tall oak whenever she wasn’t chasing after the five of us. My older brother, Dave, and I were in constant motion, water-skiing in the mornings, dodging chores and sneaking off to canoe and swim in the afternoons. We didn’t have a television set but our neighbors did, and very late on the evening of July 20, 1969, we traipsed across the clearing between our cottages and jammed ourselves into their living room along with just about everybody else on the island. Dave and I perched on the back of a sofa and craned our necks to see the screen. Slowly, methodically, a man descended the leg of a spaceship and carefully stepped onto the surface of the Moon. The image was grainy, but I knew exactly what we were seeing: the impossible, made possible. The room erupted in amazement. The adults shook hands, the kids yelped and whooped. Somehow, we felt as if we were up there with Neil Armstrong, changing the world.
Later, walking back to our cottage, I looked up at the Moon. It was no longer a distant, unknowable orb but a place where people walked, talked, worked and even slept. At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to follow in the footsteps so boldly imprinted just moments before. Roaring around in a rocket, exploring space, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and human capability—I knew, with absolute clarity, that I wanted to be an astronaut.
I also knew, as did every kid in Canada, that it was impossible. Astronauts were American. NASA only accepted applications from U.S. citizens, and Canada didn’t even have a space agency. But . . . just the day before, it had been impossible to walk on the Moon. Neil Armstrong hadn’t let that stop him. Maybe someday it would be possible for me to go too, and if that day ever came, I wanted to be ready.
I was old enough to understand that getting ready wasn’t simply a matter of playing “space mission” with my brothers in our bunk beds, underneath a big National Geographic poster of the Moon. But there was no program I could enroll in, no manual I could read, no one even to ask. There was only one option, I decided. I had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were 9 years old, then do the exact same thing. I could get started immediately. Would an astronaut eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book?
I didn’t announce to my parents or my brothers and sisters that I wanted to be an astronaut. That would’ve elicited approximately the same reaction as announcing that I wanted to be a movie star. But from that night forward, my dream provided direction to my life. I recognized even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I’d become.
I’d always enjoyed school, but when fall came, I threw myself into it with a new sense of purpose. I was in an enrichment program that year and the next, where we were taught to think more critically and analytically, to question rather than simply try to get the right answers. We memorized Robert Service poems, rattled off the French alphabet as quickly as we could, solved mind-bending puzzles, mock-played the stock market (I bought shares in a seed company on a hunch—not a profitable one, it turned out). Really, we learned how to learn.
It’s not difficult to make yourself work hard when you want something the way I wanted to be an astronaut, but it sure helps to grow up on a corn farm. When I was 7 years old we’d moved from Sarnia to Milton, not all that far from the Toronto airport my dad flew in and out of, and my parents bought a farm. Both of them had grown up on farms and viewed the downtime in a pilot’s schedule as a wonderful opportunity to work themselves to the bone while carrying on the family tradition. Between working the land and looking after five kids, they were far too busy to hover over any of us. They simply expected that if we really wanted something, we’d push ourselves accordingly— after we’d finished our chores.
That we were responsible for the consequences of our own actions was just a given. One day in my early teens, I drove up a hedgerow with our tractor a little too confidently—showing off to myself, basically. Just when I got to feeling I was about the best tractor driver around, I hooked the drawbar behind the tractor on a fence post, breaking the bar. I was furious at myself and embarrassed, but my father wasn’t the kind of father who said, “That’s all right, son, you go play. I’ll take over.” He was the kind who told me sternly that I’d better learn how to weld that bar back together, then head right back out to the field with it to finish my job. He helped me with the welding and I reattached the bar and carried on. Later that same day, when I broke the bar again in exactly the same way, no one needed to yell at me. I was so frustrated about my own foolishness that I started yelling at myself. Then I asked my father to help me weld the bar back together again and headed out to the fields a third time, quite a bit more cautiously.
Growing up on a farm was great for instilling patience, which was necessary given our rural location. Getting to the enrichment program involved a 2-hour bus ride each way. By the time I was in high school and on the bus only 2 hours a day, total, I felt lucky. On the plus side, I’d long ago got in the habit of using travel time to read and study—I kept trying to do the things an astronaut would do, though it wasn’t an exercise in grim obsession. Determined as I was to be ready, just in case I ever got to go to space, I was equally determined to enjoy myself. If my choices had been making me miserable, I couldn’t have continued. I lack the gene for martyrdom.
Fortunately, my interests dovetailed perfectly with those of the Apollo-era astronauts. Most were fighter pilots and test pilots; I also loved airplanes. When I was 13, just as Dave had and my younger brother and sisters would later, I’d joined Air Cadets, which is sort of like a cross between Boy Scouts and the Air Force: you learn about military discipline and leadership, and you’re taught how to fly. At 15 I got my glider license, and at 16, I started learning to fly powered planes. I loved the sensation, the speed, the challenge of trying to execute maneuvers with some degree of elegance. I wanted to be a better pilot not only because it fit in with the just-in-case astronaut scenario, but because I loved flying.
Of course, I had other interests, too: reading science fiction, playing guitar, water-skiing. I also skied downhill competitively, and what I loved about racing was the same thing I loved about flying: learning to manage speed and power effectively, so that you can tear along, concentrating on making the next turn or swoop or glide, yet still be enough in control that you don’t wipe out. In my late teens I even became an instructor, but although skiing all day was a ridiculously fun way to make money, I knew that spending a few years bumming around on the hills would not help me become an astronaut.
Throughout all this I never felt that I’d be a failure in life if I didn’t get to space. Since the odds of becoming an astronaut were non-existent, I knew it would be pretty silly to hang my sense of self-worth on it. My attitude was more, “It’s probably not going to happen, but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction, just in case—and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.”
Back then, much more than today, the route to NASA was via the military, so after high school I decided to apply to military college. At the very least, I’d wind up with a good education and an opportunity to serve my country (plus, I’d be paid to go to school). At college I majored in mechanical engineering, thinking that if I didn’t make it as a military pilot, maybe I could be an engineer—I’d always liked figuring out how things work. And as I studied and worked numbers, my eyes would sometimes drift up to the picture of the Space Shuttle I’d hung over my desk.
The Christmas of 1981, six months before graduation, I did something that likely influenced the course of my life more than anything else I’ve done. I got married. Helene and I had been dating since high school, and she’d already graduated from university and was a rising star at the insurance agency where she worked— so successful that we were able to buy a house in Kitchener, Ontario, before we even got married. During our first two years of wedded bliss, we were apart for almost 18 months. I went to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to begin basic jet training with the Canadian Forces; Helene gave birth to our first child, Kyle, and began raising him alone in Kitchener because a recession had made it impossible to sell our house; we came very close to bankruptcy. Helene gave up her job and she and Kyle moved to Moose Jaw to live in base housing—and then I was posted to Cold Lake, Alberta, to learn to fly fighters, first CF-5s, then CF-18s. It was, in other words, the kind of opening chapter that makes or breaks a marriage, and the stress didn’t decrease when, in 1983, the Canadian government recruited and selected its first six astronauts. My dream finally seemed marginally more possible. From that point onward, I was even more motivated to focus on my career; one reason our marriage has flourished is that Helene enthusiastically endorses the concept of going all out in the pursuit of a goal.
A lot of people who meet us remark that it can’t be easy being married to a highly driven, take-charge overachiever who views moving house as a sport, and I have to confess that it is not—being married to Helene has at times been difficult for me. She’s intimidatingly capable. Parachute her into any city in the world and within 24 hours she’ll have lined up an apartment, furnished it with IKEA stuff she gaily assembled herself and scored tickets to the sold-out concert. She raised our three children, often functioning as a single parent because of the amount of time I was on the road, while holding down a variety of demanding jobs, from running the SAP system of a large company to working as a professional chef. She is an über-doer, exactly the kind of person you want riding shotgun when you’re chasing a big goal and also trying to have a life. While achieving both things may not take a village, it sure does take a team.
This became extremely clear to me when I was finishing my training to fly fighters and was told I’d be posted to Germany. Helene was very pregnant with our second child, and we were excited about the prospect of moving to Europe. We were already mentally vacationing in Paris with our beautifully behaved, trilingual children when word came down that there had been a change of plans. We were going to Bagotville, Quebec, where I’d fly CF-18s for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), intercepting Soviet aircraft that strayed into Canadian airspace. It was a great opportunity to be posted to a brand-new squadron, and Bagotville has much to recommend it, but it is very cold in the winter and it is not Europe in any season. The next three years were difficult for our family. We were still reeling financially, I was flying fighters (not a low-stress occupation) and Helene was at home with two rambunctious little boys—Evan was born just days before we moved to Bagotville—and no real career prospects. Then, when Evan was 7 months old, she discovered she was pregnant again. At the time, it felt to both of us less like a happy accident than the last straw. I looked around, trying to picture what life would be like for us at 45, and thought it would be really hard if I continued to fly fighters. The squadron commanders were working their tails off for not much more money than I was already making; the workload was enormous, there was very little recognition and there was nothing even vaguely cushy about the job. Aside from anything else, being a fighter pilot is dangerous. We were losing at least one close friend every year.
So when I heard Air Canada was hiring, I decided it was time to be realistic. Working for an airline would be an easier life for us, one whose rhythms I already knew well. I actually went to an initial class to get my civilian pilot ratings and then Helene intervened. She said, “You don’t really want to be an airline pilot. You wouldn’t be happy and then I wouldn’t be happy. Don’t give up on being an astronaut—I can’t let you do that to yourself or to us. Let’s wait just a little bit longer and see how things play out.”
So I stayed on the squadron and eventually got a tiny taste of being a test pilot: when an airplane came out of maintenance, I would do the test flight. I was hooked. Fighter pilots live to fly, but while I love flying, I lived to understand airplanes: why they do certain things, how to make them perform even better. People on the squadron were genuinely puzzled when I said I wanted to go to test pilot school. Why would anyone give up the glory of being a fighter pilot to be an engineer, essentially? But the engineering aspects of the job were exactly what appealed to me, along with the opportunity to make high-performance aircraft safer.
Canada doesn’t have its own test pilot school, but usually sends two pilots a year to study in France, the U.K. or the U.S. In 1987, I won the lottery: I was selected to go to the French school, which is on the Mediterranean. We rented the perfect house there, which came complete with a car. We packed our things, we had goodbye parties. And then, two weeks before we were to wrangle our three kids onto the plane—Kristin was about 9 months old— there was some sort of high-level dispute between the Canadian and French governments. France gave my slot away to a pilot from another country. To say it was a big disappointment personally and a major setback professionally is to understate the case. We were beside ourselves. We’d hit a dead end.
As I have discovered again and again, things are never as bad (or as good) as they seem at the time. In retrospect, the heartbreaking disaster may be revealed as a lucky twist of fate, and so it was with losing the French slot in the spring. A few months later, I was selected to go to the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, and our year there changed everything. It started out perfectly: we headed to sunny Southern California in December, just as winter gripped Bagotville. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go into base housing until the moving van arrived with our furniture. Fortunately, that took several weeks, and in the meantime, we got to spend Christmas at a hotel in Disneyland.
The next year, 1988, was one of the busiest and best of my life. Test pilot school was like getting a Ph.D. in flying; in a single year we flew 32 different types of planes and were tested every day. It was incredibly tough—and incredibly fun: everyone in the class lived on the same street, and we were all in our late 20s or early 30s and liked to have a good time. The program suited me better than anything I’d done to that point, because of its focus on the analytical aspects of flying, the math, the science—and the camaraderie. It was the first time, really, that I’d been part of a group of people who were so much like me. Most of us wanted to be astronauts, and we didn’t need to keep our desire a secret anymore. TPS is a direct pipeline to NASA; two of my classmates, my good friends Susan Helms and Rick Husband, made it and became astronauts.
It wasn’t at all clear, though, if test pilot school would be a route to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). When, or even whether, the CSA would select more astronauts was anyone’s guess. Only one thing was certain: the first Canadian astronauts were all payload specialists—scientists, not pilots. By that point, though, I’d already committed to trying to follow the typical American path to becoming an astronaut. Maybe I’d wind up with the wrong stuff for the only space agency where I had the right passport, but it was too late to change tack. On the plus side, however, even if I never became an astronaut, I knew I’d feel I was doing something worthwhile with my life if I spent the rest of it as a test pilot.
Our class toured the Johnson Space Center in Houston and visited other flight test centers, like the one in Cold Lake, Alberta, and the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, where I ran into a Canadian test pilot who was there as part of a regular exchange program. This guy casually mentioned that his tour was going to end soon and he’d be heading back to Cold Lake, so he guessed someone would be sent to replace him but he wasn’t sure who, yet. When I told Helene about this later, she gave me an are-you-thinking-what-I’m-thinking look.
I was. Pax is one of the few major test centers in the world. They have the resources to do cutting-edge work such as testing new types of engines and new configurations for military aircraft, not just for the U.S. but for many other countries, from Australia to Kuwait. Not surprisingly, given the relative size of the Canadian military, Cold Lake tests many fewer planes and focuses on modifications, not on expanding the planes’ fundamental capabilities. We had loved living in Cold Lake while I was training to fly fighters, but we’d be spending many years there after I finished test pilot school—why not try to get a stint at Pax first? And yes, there was something else, too: we had become accustomed to warm winters. So I called my career manager (a military officer whose job it is to figure out which billets need to be filled and who could best fill them) and said, “Hey, it would save the Forces about $50,000 if, rather than move us all the way back up to Cold Lake and some other family down to Pax River, you just moved us straight out to Maryland.” He was unequivocal: “No way. You’re coming back.” Oh well, it had been worth a try. But the fact of the matter was that the Canadian government had spent about a million dollars to send me to test pilot school. They had every right to tell me where to go.
We started getting ready to move again. But a month later, I got a phone call from the career manager: “I’ve got a great idea. How about I send you straight to Pax River?” It probably didn’t hurt my case that I was the top graduate that year at TPS and had led the team whose research project got top honors. That was a big deal for me, personally, and I took some nationalistic pride in it, too—a Canadian, the top U.S. Air Force test pilot graduate! I was even interviewed by a reporter for the Cold Lake newspaper. No one at the paper could think of a title for the article, though, so they called out to the test center, and whoever answered the phone said, “Just call it ‘Canadian Wins Top Test Pilot’ or something to that effect.” A friend mailed me a copy of the article, which was a nice keepsake as well as a reality check for my ego. The headline that ran? “Canadian Wins Top Test Pilot or Something to that Effect.”
Helene and I decided to make a family vacation out of our move to Pax River, so in December 1988, we packed up our light blue station wagon with fake wooden side panels, a hideous looking vehicle we called The Limo, and drove from California to Maryland. We were a young couple with three little kids, seeing the southern states for the very first time: we went to SeaWorld, explored caves, spent December 25 in Baton Rouge—it was a great adventure.
So was our time at Pax. We rented a farmhouse instead of living in base housing, which was a nice change for everyone. After a while Helene got a job as a realtor because the hours were somewhat flexible; Kyle, Evan and Kristin all eventually started school. And I tested F-18s, deliberately putting them out of control way up high, then figuring out how to recover as they fell to Earth. At first I was pretty tentative, because I’d spent my life trying to control airplanes, not send them ripping all over the place, but as I gained confidence I started trying different techniques. By the end I was hooked on the feeling: just how far out of control could I get the plane to go? In that program we developed some good recovery techniques, counterintuitive ones that wound up saving planes as well as pilots’ lives.
Meanwhile, I was still thinking about what qualifications I would need if the CSA ever started hiring again. An advanced degree seemed like a must, so I worked evenings and weekends to complete a master’s degree in aviation systems at the University of Tennessee, which had a great distance learning program. I only had to show up to defend my thesis. Probably my most significant accomplishment at Pax River, though, was to pilot the first flight test of an external burning hydrogen propulsion engine, an engine that would make a plane fly far faster than the speed of sound. The paper that Sharon Houck, the flight test engineer, and I wrote about our research won The Society of Experimental Test Pilots’ top award. For us, it was like winning an Oscar, not least because the ceremony was held in Beverly Hills and the audience included legendary pilots like Scott Crossfield, the first person in the world to fly at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.
To cap it all off, I was named the U.S. Navy test pilot of the year in 1991. My tour was drawing to a close and I’d achieved the American dream—citizenship notwithstanding. My plan was to relax a bit and enjoy our final year in Maryland, spend more time with the kids and play a little more guitar. And then the Canadian Space Agency took out an ad in the newspaper.
I had about 10 feverish days to write and submit my resumé. Helene and I set about making this thing the most impressive document ever to emerge from rural Maryland. Certainly it was one of the most voluminous: there were pages and pages, listing everything I’d ever done, every honor and award and course I could remember. This was back in the day of the dot matrix printer, so we decided we should get it professionally printed, on high quality paper. Then Helene decreed it should be bound, too. That would catch their eye! A professionally bound resumé, approximately the size of a phone book. But we didn’t stop there: I had a francophone friend translate the entire thing into perfect French, and we had that version separately printed and bound. We proofed both documents so many times that at night I was dreaming about errant commas, and then we seriously debated driving to Ottawa so we could be 100 percent certain my application got there on time. Reluctantly, I agreed to trust a courier— then called the CSA to be sure the package had actually arrived. It had, along with 5,329 other applications. That was January 1992.
What followed was the least comfortable five-month period of my life. I kept trying to do everything right but there was no feedback and no way to tell if I was succeeding or not.
We heard nothing for weeks, but finally a letter arrived: I’d made it to the top 500 round! The next step was to fill out some psychiatric evaluation forms. I did, and the response was, “You’ll hear from us, yes or no, within a few weeks.” The “few weeks” came and went. Radio silence. Another week dragged by. Had I come off as so psychologically unbalanced that they were concerned to tell me I was a “no”? Eventually I couldn’t stand the uncertainty any longer and phoned the CSA. The guy who answered said, “Wait a minute, let me look at the list. Hadfield. Hmmm . . . Oh yeah, here’s Hadfield. Congratulations, you’ve made it to the next level.” Not for the last time, I wondered whether this whole process was in fact a cunningly designed stress test to see how applicants coped with uncertainty and irritation.
By this point, there were 100 of us left. I was asked to go to Washington, D.C., for an interview with an industrial psychologist, who met me in the lobby of a hotel and announced, “I didn’t rent a hall or anything, we’ll just talk in my room.” As we headed up there, all I could think was that if I were a woman, I really would not be feeling good about this at all. When we got to his room, he invited me to make myself comfortable, and I hesitated: bed or chair—which would say the right thing about me? I opted for the chair and answered some questions that were fairly obviously intended to reveal little more than severe psychoses. If I remember correctly, he asked whether I’d ever wanted to kill my mother.
More weeks of waiting, but the phone did finally ring: 50 of us had been given the nod to go to Toronto for more interviews.
Fifty! At this point I did allow myself to believe I had a chance of being selected, and decided it was time to tell my career manager what I was up to. In the U.S., the military pre-selects applicants; you apply to your service and they decide whose names to put forward to NASA. But in Canada, the military had no role in the process, and I think they were rather confused when I called and said, “Thought I should let you know that I’ve applied to be an astronaut, so you might need to replace me at Pax River a little earlier than planned—or not.”
Nothing was much clearer to me after Toronto, where I had initial medical tests to make sure I was basically healthy, as well as a lengthy panel interview with a few CSA people, including Bob Thirsk, one of the first Canadian astronauts. I went back to Maryland, where Helene was excited and confident, and I tried to lead my normal life but could not forget for a moment what was hanging in the balance. For so long, becoming an astronaut had been a theoretical concept, but now that it was really happening—or not—it was horribly nerve-wracking. Would the 9-year-old boy achieve his dreams?
Then I made the final round. Twenty candidates were being summoned to Ottawa at the end of April for a week, so they could get a really good look at us. I was already exercising and eating carefully, but now I really got serious. I wanted to be sure my cholesterol was low—I knew they’d put us under the microscope, medically speaking—and that I was the picture of good health. I figured out the 100 things they might ask me and practiced my answers. Then I practiced them in French. When I got to Ottawa my first thought was that I had some serious competition. The other 19 applicants were impressive. Some had Ph.D.s. Some were military college graduates like me. Some had reams of publications to their names. There were doctors and scientists and test pilots, and everyone was trying to project casual magnificence. Of course, the set-up could not have been more anxiety inducing. No one even knew how many of us might make the final cut. Six? One? I was trying to appear serenely unconcerned while subtly implying that I was the obvious choice, with all the qualifications they were looking for. I hoped.
It was a busy week. There was a mock press conference, to see whether we were skilled at public relations or could be trained to do it. There were in-depth medical exams involving many vials of bodily fluids and a great deal of poking and prodding. But the real make-or-break event was an hour-long panel interview, which included CSA bigwigs, PR people and astronauts. I thought about it all week: How to stand out, yet not be a jerk? What were the best answers to the obvious questions? What should I not say? I’m pretty sure I was the last interview of the week, but in any event the panel members were clearly accustomed to one another’s interviewing styles and in the habit of deferring to Mac Evans, who later went on to head the CSA. When it was time to answer a question, they’d say, “Mac, you want to take this one?” I felt I’d bonded a little with these people over the past week, and when someone asked me a really tough question, it just popped out of my mouth: “Mac, you want to take this one?” It was a gamble and could have come off as arrogance, but they laughed uproariously, which bought me another minute to think up a decent answer. However, there was no actual feedback. I had no idea whether they liked me more or less than anyone else. I headed back to Maryland having no clue whether they were going to choose me or not.
In parting, we’d been told that on a particular Saturday in May, all 20 of us would get a phone call between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. to confirm whether we’d been selected or rejected. When that Saturday finally arrived, I decided the best thing to do to make the time pass more quickly would be to go water-skiing with friends who had a boat, so that’s what we did. Then Helene and I went back to the house to eat lunch and watch the clock. We figured they’d call the people they wanted to hire first, so if someone declined, they could move on to the next name on the list. We were right: shortly after 1:00 the phone rang, and I picked it up in the kitchen. It was Mac Evans, asking if I wanted to be an astronaut.
I did, of course. I always had.
But my main emotion was not joy or surprise or even huge enthusiasm. It was an enormous rush of relief, as though a vast internal dam of self-imposed pressure had finally burst. I had not let myself down. I had not let Helene down. I had not let my family down. This thing we’d worked toward all this time was actually going to happen. Mac told me I could tell my family, as long as they understood it needed to be kept entirely under wraps, so after Helene and I absorbed the news—insofar as we could— I called my mother and swore her to secrecy. She must have started phoning people as soon as she hung up. By the time I got my grandfather on the line, it was old news.
In the subsequent months, there would be excitement, a secret meeting with the other three new astronauts, then hoopla and publicity, even some pomp and circumstance. But the day I got the call from the CSA, I felt as though I’d suddenly, safely, reached the summit of a mountain I’d been climbing since I was 9 years old, and was now looking over the other side. It was impossible, yet it had happened. I was an astronaut.
Only, as it turned out, I wasn’t yet. Becoming an astronaut, someone who reliably makes good decisions when the consequences really matter, takes more than a phone call. It’s not something anyone else can confer on you, actually. It takes years of serious, sustained effort, because you need to build a new knowledge base, develop your physical capabilities and dramatically expand your technical skill set. But the most important thing you need to change? Your mind. You need to learn to think like an astronaut.
I was just getting started.
1 The Trip Takes a Lifetime
One morning a strange thought occurs to me shortly after waking: the socks I am about to put on are the ones I’ll wear to leave Earth. That prospect feels real yet surreal, the way a particularly vivid dream does. The feeling intensifies at breakfast, when reporters jostle each other to get a good photo, as though I’m a condemned man and this is my last meal. Similarly, a little later on, when the technicians help me into my custom-made spacesuit for pressure checks, the joviality feels forced. It’s the moment of truth. The suit needs to function perfectly—it is what will keep me alive and able to breathe if the spacecraft depressurizes in the vacuum of space—because this isn’t a run-through.
I am actually leaving the planet today.
Or not, I remind myself. There are still hours to go, hours when anything could go wrong and the launch could be scrubbed. That thought, combined with the fact that I’m now wearing a diaper just in case we get stuck on the launch pad for a very long time, steers my interior monologue away from the portentous and toward the practical. There’s a lot to remember. Focus.
Once everyone in the crew is suited up, we all get into the elevator in crew quarters to ride down to the ground and out to our rocket ship. It’s one of those space-age moments I dreamed about as a little kid, except for the slow—really slow—elevator. Descent from the third floor takes only slightly less time than it does to boil an egg. When we finally head outside to walk toward the big silver Astro van that will take us to the launch pad, it’s that moment everyone knows: flashbulbs pop in the pre-dawn darkness, the crowd cheers, we wave and smile. In the van, we can see the rocket in the distance, lit up and shining, an obelisk. In reality, of course, it’s a 4.5-megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it.
At the launch pad, we ride the elevator up—this one moves at a good clip—and one by one we crawl into the vehicle on our hands and knees. Then the closeout crew helps strap me tightly into my tiny seat, and one of them hands me a note from Helene, telling me she loves me. I’m not exactly comfortable— the spacesuit is bulky and hot, the cabin is cramped, a distinctly un-cushion-like parachute and survival kit is wedged awkwardly behind my back—and I’m going to be stuck in this position for a few hours, minimum. But I can’t imagine any place else I’d rather be.
After the ground crew checks the cockpit one last time, says goodbye and closes the hatch, it’s time for pressure checks of the cabin. Banter ebbs: everyone is hyper-focused. This is all about increasing our chances of staying alive. Yet there’s still a whiff of make-believe to the exercise because any number of things could still happen—a fault in the wiring, a problem with a fuel tank—to downgrade this to just another elaborate dress rehearsal.
But as every second passes, the odds improve that we’re going to space today. As we work through huge checklists—reviewing and clearing all caution and warning alarms, making sure the multiple frequencies used to communicate with Launch Control and Mission Control are all functional—the vehicle rumbles to life: systems power up, the engine bells chime for launch. When the auxiliary power units fire up, the rocket’s vibration becomes more insistent. In my earpiece, I hear the final checks from the key console positions, and my crewmates’ breathing, then a heartfelt farewell from the Launch Director. I go through my checklist a quick hundred times or so to make sure I remember all the critical things that are about to happen, what my role will be and what I’ll do if things start going wrong.
And now there are just 30 seconds left and the rocket stirs like a living thing with a will of its own and I permit myself to move past hoping to knowing: we are going to lift off. Even if we have to abort the mission after a few minutes in the air, leaving this launch pad is a sure thing.
Six seconds to go. The engines start to light, and we sway forward as this huge new force bends the vehicle, which lurches sideways then twangs back to vertical. And at that moment there’s an enormous, violent vibration and rattle. It feels as though we’re being shaken in a huge dog’s jaws, then seized by its giant, unseen master and hurled straight up into the sky, away from Earth. It feels like magic, like winning, like a dream.
It also feels as though a huge truck going at top speed just smashed into the side of us. Perfectly normal, apparently, and we’d been warned to expect it. So I just keep “hawking it,” flipping through my tables and checklists and staring at the buttons and lights over my head, scanning the computers for signs of trouble, trying not to blink. The launch tower is long gone and we’re roaring upward, pinned down increasingly emphatically in our seats as the vehicle burns fuel, gets lighter and, 45 seconds later, pushes past the speed of sound. Thirty seconds after that, we’re flying higher and faster than the Concorde ever did: Mach 2 and still revving up. It’s like being in a dragster, just flooring it. Two minutes after lift-off we’re hurtling along at six times the speed of sound when the solid rocket boosters explode off the vehicle and we surge forward again. I’m still completely focused on my checklist, but out of the corner of my eye, I register that the color of the sky has gone from light blue to dark blue to black.
And then, suddenly, calm: we reach Mach 25, orbital speed, the engines wind down, and I notice little motes of dust floating lazily upward. Upward. Experimentally, I let go of my checklist for a few seconds and watch it hover, then drift off serenely, instead of thumping to the ground. I feel like a little kid, like a sorcerer, like the luckiest person alive. I am in space, weightless, and getting here only took 8 minutes and 42 seconds.
Give or take a few thousand days of training.
That was my first launch, on Space Shuttle Atlantis, years ago now: November 12, 1995. But the experience still feels so vivid and immediate that it seems inaccurate, somehow, to describe it in the past tense. Launch is overwhelming on a sensory level: all that speed and all that power, then abruptly, the violence of momentum gives way to the gentle dreaminess of floating on an invisible cushion of air.
I don’t think it would be possible to grow accustomed to such an intense experience or be blasé about it. On that first mission, the most seasoned astronaut on board was Jerry Ross, a frequent flyer on the Shuttle. It was his fifth space flight (he subsequently flew twice more, and is one of only two astronauts who’ve ever launched to space seven times, the other being Franklin Ramón Chang Díaz). Jerry is quietly competent and immensely calm and controlled, the embodiment of the trustworthy, loyal, courteous and brave astronaut archetype. Throughout our training, whenever I was unsure what to do I’d look over to see what he was doing. On Atlantis, five minutes before lift-off I noticed he was doing something I’d never seen him do before: his right knee was bouncing up and down slightly. I remember thinking, “Wow, something really incredible must be about to happen if Jerry’s knee is bouncing!”
I doubt he was conscious of his own physical reactions. I sure wasn’t. I was far too focused on the novelty of what was going on around me to be looking inward. In fact, during ascent, I was checking tables, doing my job, tracking everything I was supposed to track when I suddenly became aware that my face hurt. Then I realized: I’d been smiling so much, without even being aware of it, that my cheeks were cramping up.
More than a quarter-century after I’d stood in a clearing on Stag Island and gazed up at the night sky, I was finally up there myself, orbiting Earth as a mission specialist on STS-74. Our main objective: to construct a docking module on the Russian space station Mir. The plan was use the Shuttle’s robot arm to move a newly built docking module up out of its nest in Atlantis’s payload bay; install the module on top of the Shuttle; then rendezvous and dock it and Atlantis with the station so that future Shuttle flights would have a safer, easier way to get on board Mir than we did.
It was an enormously complicated challenge and we had no way of knowing whether the plan would even work. No one had ever tried to do such a thing before. As it happened, our eight-day mission didn’t come off without a hitch. In fact, key equipment failed at a critical moment and nothing proceeded exactly as planned. Yet we managed to construct that docking module anyway, and leaving the station I felt—the whole crew felt—a sense of satisfaction bordering on jubilation. We’d done something difficult and done it well. Mission accomplished. Dream realized.
Only, it hadn’t been, not fully anyway. In one sense I felt at peace: I’d been to space at last and it had been even more fulfilling than I’d imagined. But I hadn’t been given a lot of responsibility up there—no one is on the first flight—nor had I contributed as much as I would have liked. The difference between Jerry Ross and me, in terms of what we could contribute, was huge. Training in Houston, I hadn’t been able to separate out the vital from the trivial, to differentiate between what was going to keep me alive in an emergency and what was esoteric and interesting but not crucial. There had been so much to learn, I’d just been trying to cram it all into my brain. During the mission, too, I was in receive mode: tell me everything, keep teaching me, I’m going to soak up every last drop.
So despite having traveled 3.4 million miles, I didn’t feel I’d arrived at my destination. An astronaut was something I was still in the process of becoming.
Space flight alone doesn’t do the trick. These days, anyone who has deep enough pockets and good enough health can go to space. Space flight participants, commonly known as space tourists, pay between $20 and $40 million each to leave Earth for 10 days or so and go to the International Space Station (ISS) via Soyuz, the compact Russian rocket that is now the only way for humans to get to the ISS. It’s not as simple as getting on a plane; they have to complete about six months of basic safety training. But being a space flight participant is not really the same as being an astronaut.
An astronaut is someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter. I didn’t miraculously become one either, after just eight days in space. But I did get in touch with the fact that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I still had a lot to learn, and I’d have to learn it the same place everyone learns to be an astronaut: right here on Earth.
Sometimes when people find out I’m an astronaut, they ask, “So what do you do when you’re not flying in space?” They have the impression that between launches, we pretty much sit around in a waiting room in Houston trying to catch our breath before the next liftoff. Since you usually only hear about astronauts when they’re in space, or about to be, this is not an unreasonable assumption. I always feel I’m disappointing people when I tell them the truth: we are earthbound, training, most of our working lives.
Fundamentally, astronauts are in the service profession: we’re public servants, government employees who are tasked with doing something difficult on behalf of the people of our country. It’s a responsibility we can’t help but take seriously; millions of dollars are invested in our training, and we’re entrusted with equipment that’s worth billions. The job description is not to experience yee-haw personal thrills in space, but to help make space exploration safer and more scientifically productive—not for ourselves but for others. So although we learn the key skills we will need to know if we go to space, like spacewalking, we spend a lot of our time troubleshooting for other astronauts, helping to work through technical problems that colleagues are experiencing on orbit and also trying to develop new tools and procedures to be used in the future. Most days, we train and take classes— lots of them—and exams. In the evenings and on weekends, we study. On top of that we have ground jobs, supporting other astronauts’ missions, and these are crucially important for developing our own skills, too.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of different roles, from sitting on committees to serving as Chief of International Space Station Operations in Houston. The ground job I held the longest and where I felt I contributed the most, though, was capcom, or capsule communicator. The capcom is the main conduit of information between Mission Control and astronauts on orbit, and the job is an endless challenge, like a crossword puzzle that expands as fast as you can fill it in.
Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) has got to be one of the most formidable and intellectually stimulating classrooms in the world. Everyone in the room has hard-won expertise in a particular technical area, and they are like spiders, exquisitely sensitive to any vibration in their webs, ready to pounce on problems and efficiently dispose of them. The capcom never has anything close to the same depth of technical knowledge but, rather, is the voice of operational reason. I started in 1996 and quickly discovered that having flown even once gave me insight into what it made sense to ask a crew to do in space, and equally important, when. If one of the experts at Mission Control suggested the crew do X, I would be aware of some of the logistical difficulties that someone who’d never been up there might not consider; similarly, the crew knew I could empathize with and understand their needs and challenges because I’d been to space myself. The capcom is less a middleman, though, than an interpreter who is constantly analyzing all changing inputs and factors, making countless quick small judgments and decisions, then passing them on to the crew and the ground team in Houston. It’s like being coach, quarterback, water boy and cheerleader, all in one.
Within about a year, I was Chief capcom, and in total worked 25 Shuttle flights. The job had only one drawback: when a launch was delayed, as they often were at Cape Canaveral because of the weather, it could wreak havoc with family vacation plans. Sadly, capcoms cannot telecommute. Other than that, however, I viewed it as a plum assignment, one learning opportunity after another. I learned how to summarize and distill the acronym-charged, technical discussions that were going on over the internal voice loops in Mission Control in order to relay the essential information to the crew with clarity and, I hoped, good humor. When not on console at JSC, I trained with crews to see firsthand how the astronauts interacted and what their individual strengths and weaknesses were, which helped ensure that I could advocate effectively for them when they were in space—and also that I stayed up-to-date in terms of both training and using complex equipment and hardware. I loved the job, not least because I could feel, see and remember my direct contribution to every mission. After each landing, as that crew’s plaque was hung on the wall at MCC, I could look up and see not just a colorful symbol of collective accomplishment, but a personal symbol of challenges overcome, complexity mastered, the near-impossible achieved.
When I went to space again on STS-100 in April 2001, it was with a much deeper understanding of the whole puzzle of space flight, not just my own small piece of it. I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t have welcomed the chance to go to space earlier (American astronauts were, understandably, at the front of the line for Shuttle assignments—the vehicle was made in the U.S.A. and owned by the U.S. government). But without question, being on the ground for six years between my first and second flights made me a much better astronaut and one who had more to contribute both on Earth and off it.
I began training for STS-100 a full four years before we were scheduled to blast off. Our destination, the International Space Station, did not even exist yet; the first pieces of the Station were sent up in 1998. Our main objective was to take up and install Canadarm2, a huge, external robotic arm for capturing satellites and spaceships, moving supplies and people around and, most important, assembling the rest of the ISS. The Shuttle would continue to bring up modules and labs, and Canadarm2 would help place them where they were supposed to go. It was the world’s most expensive and sophisticated construction tool, and getting it up and working would require not one EVA (extra vehicular activity, or spacewalk) but two—and I was EV1, lead spacewalker, though I’d never been outside a spaceship in my life.
Spacewalking is like rock climbing, weightlifting, repairing a small engine and performing an intricate pas de deux— simultaneously, while encased in a bulky suit that’s scraping your knuckles, fingertips and collarbone raw. In zero gravity, many easy tasks become incredibly difficult. Just turning a wrench to loosen a bolt can be like trying to change a tire while wearing ice skates and goalie mitts. Each spacewalk, therefore, is a highly choreographed multi-year effort involving hundreds of people and a lot of unrecognized, dogged work to ensure that all the details—and all the contingencies—have been thought through. Hyper-planning is necessary because any EVA is dangerous. You’re venturing out into a vacuum that is entirely hostile to life. If you get into trouble, you can’t just hightail it back inside the spaceship.
I practiced spacewalking in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, which is essentially a giant pool at JSC, for years. Literally. My experience both during my first flight and at Mission Control had taught me how to prioritize better, how to figure out what was actually important as opposed to just nice-to-know. The key things to understand were what the outside of the ISS would be like, how to move around out there without damaging anything and how to make repairs and adjustments in real time. My goal in the pool was to practice each step and action I would take until it became second nature.
I’m glad I did that, because I ran into some unanticipated problems during the spacewalk, ones I probably couldn’t have worked through if my preparation had been slapdash. Ultimately, STS-100 was a complete success: we returned home on Space Shuttle Endeavour tired but proud of what we’d accomplished. Helping to install Canadarm2 and playing a part in building this permanent human habitat off our planet—which is all the more remarkable because it has required the participation and cooperation of 15 nations—made me feel like a contributing, competent astronaut.
That feeling didn’t diminish even slightly when I proceeded to spend the next 11 years on Earth. I hoped to go back to space, yes, but I wasn’t sitting around in space explorers’ purgatory, doing nothing. In Star City, where Yuri Gagarin trained, I worked as NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia from 2001 to 2003, and I learned to live the local life, really embrace it, in order to understand the people I worked with and be more effective in the role. That experience came in handy when, a decade later, I wound up living and working closely with Russian cosmonauts. Not only did I speak their language, but I knew something about myself: it takes me longer to understand when the culture is not my own, so I have to consciously resist the urge to hurry things along and push my own expectations on others.
From Star City I moved back to Houston to become Chief of Robotics for the NASA Astronaut Office during one of the lowest points in NASA’s history. It was 2003, right after the Columbia disaster; the Shuttle was grounded, construction on the ISS had therefore ceased, and many Americans were grimly questioning why tax dollars were being spent on such a dangerous endeavor as space exploration in the first place. It seemed possible that while we might overcome the technical hurdles and make the Shuttle a much safer vehicle, we might not be able to roll back the tide of public opinion. Yet we managed to do both, a good reminder of how important it is to retain a strong sense of purpose and optimism even when a goal seems impossible to achieve.
Impossible was, frankly, what a third space flight was starting to look like for me. But just as I had back in college, I decided it made sense to be as ready as I could be, just in case. And so from 2006 to 2008, I was Chief of International Space Station Operations in the NASA Astronaut Office, responsible for everything to do with selection, training, certification, support, recovery, rehab and reintegration of all ISS crew members. Interacting with space agencies in other countries and focusing so intensively on the ISS turned out to be good preparation. I got the nod for another mission: this time, a long-duration expedition.
On December 19, 2012, I went back to space for the third time, via the Russian Soyuz, along with NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko. Crews on the ISS overlap so newcomers have a few months to learn from old-timers; we joined Expedition 34, which was commanded by Kevin Ford. When his crew left in early March 2013, Expedition 35 began with a new commander: me. It was what I’d been working toward my whole life, really, to be capable and competent to assume responsibility for both the crew—which numbered six again in late March, when another Soyuz arrived—and the ISS itself. It was reality, yet hard to believe.
As I got ready for my third flight, it struck me: I was one of the most senior astronauts in the office. This was not my favorite revelation of all time, given that I didn’t—still don’t—think of myself as that old. On the plus side, however, people listened to what I had to say and respected my opinion; I had influence over the training and flight design process and could help make it more practical and relevant. Twenty years after I got that phone call from Mac Evans, asking if I wanted to join the CSA, I was an éminence grise at JSC—I’d only been in space 20 days, yet I had turned myself into an astronaut. Or to be more accurate, I’d been turned into an astronaut; NASA and the CSA had seen to that, by providing the right education and experiences.
That third mission, of course, greatly expanded my experience. I didn’t just visit space: I got to live there. By the time our crew landed, after 146 days in space, we’d orbited Earth 2,336 times and traveled almost 62 million miles. We’d also completed a record amount of science on the ISS. Expedition 34/35 was the pinnacle of my career, and the culmination of years of training —not just training to develop specific job-related skills, like piloting a Soyuz, but training to develop new instincts, new ways of thinking, new habits. And that journey, even more than the ones I’ve taken in rocket ships, transformed me in ways I could not have imagined when I was a 9-year-old boy looking up at the night sky, transfixed by wonder.
See, a funny thing happened on the way to space: I learned how to live better and more happily here on Earth. Over time, I learned how to anticipate problems in order to prevent them, and how to respond effectively in critical situations. I learned how to neutralize fear, how to stay focused and how to succeed.
And many of the techniques I learned were fairly simple though counterintuitive—crisp inversions of snappy aphorisms, in some cases. Astronauts are taught that the best way to reduce stress is to sweat the small stuff. We’re trained to look on the dark side and to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen. In fact, in simulators, one of the most common questions we learn to ask ourselves is, “Okay, what’s the next thing that will kill me?” We also learn that acting like an astronaut means helping one another’s families at launch—by taking their food orders, running their errands, holding their purses and dashing out to buy diapers. Of course, much of what we learn is technically complex, but some of it is surprisingly down-to-earth. Every astronaut can fix a busted toilet—we have to do it all the time in space—and we all know how to pack meticulously, the way we have to in the Soyuz, where every last item must be strapped down just so or the weight and balance get thrown off.
The upshot of all this is that we become competent, which is the most important quality to have if you’re an astronaut—or, frankly, anyone, anywhere, who is striving to succeed at anything at all. Competence means keeping your head in a crisis, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, and improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It encompasses ingenuity, determination and being prepared for anything.
Astronauts have these qualities not because we’re smarter than everyone else (though let’s face it, you do need a certain amount of intellectual horsepower to be able to fix a toilet). It’s because we are taught to view the world—and ourselves—differently. My shorthand for it is “thinking like an astronaut.” But you don’t have to go to space to learn to do that.
It’s mostly a matter of changing your perspective.
Excerpted from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Copyright © 2013 by Chris Hadfield.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.