Chris Hadfield Credit: Shutterstock

Astronaut Chris Hadfield: “I lost one colleague a year for 15 years”

The Canadian astronaut talks about space exploration, confronting death and why going into space meant relearning how to run.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield may have lived 240 miles above us all on the International Space Station for six months, but he’s no stranger to out-of-this-world experiences on planet Earth, either.

The 64-year-old Canadian and his wife Helene were invited to Windsor Castle by the late Queen and Prince Philip after he finally retired as an astronaut, having made three mind-blowing trips into space in his career, including a 15-hour space walk.

But he still ranks his trip to Windsor Castle in 2016 as right up there with his best experiences.

“That was one of those magic moments,” he says with a grin. “Walking down that long, green hallway, getting to know them just a little bit. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of monarchy, you could only have massive respect for them as people. They were so engaging and so interested in the world.” 

One day Helene ended up spending half an hour in the castle’s library with the Queen. 

“Her Majesty had forgotten her spectacles, so Helene started reading out some of this stuff for her. On the table was the document signed by the Scottish chieftains in 1707, the Act of Union – the creation of a country called Great Britain!” 


Living his dream

Colonel Chris Hadfield is now one of the most recognisable former astronauts in the world – his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station’s guitar just before handing over command in 2013 really helped his career take off. It’s since racked up more than 53 million views and helped Hadfield become a best-selling author with 2.3 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

Alongside non-fiction books about his career, he’s written children’s fiction and space/military/espionage thrillers. His latest, The Defector, is set during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, while 2021’s The Apollo Murders hinges on a top-secret Moon mission and is about to be turned into a big-budget TV series. 

It’s a career he could never have envisaged at 18 when he enlisted with the Canadian Air Force, hoping to use the military as a stepping-stone to his ultimate goal. As a nine-year-old kid, growing up on a farm in rural Ontario, he’d watched Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing in 1969 and decided he was going to be an astronaut.

“Although I enjoyed living on the farm, what happened with Apollo 11 rose above everything I’d ever known,” he recalls. “Sure, there was competition between the US and the USSR, but it was also something that felt immensely unifying. It was a human triumph.”

Developing a love of engineering while fixing the farm’s machinery, he eventually convinced his then girlfriend – now wife of 42 years – Helene that his dreams lay in the yawning vastness of space.

“Right from the start, Helene knew it was a career path that could kill me,” he says. “The crew of Apollo 1 died in a fire. And we’ve all seen Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, right? ‘Houston, we have a problem.’ When I eventually became a test pilot in the late 1980s, I lost at least one colleague a year for 15 years. One of my best friends, Rick Husband, was killed in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.”

So Helene never suggested he might consider a job as a postman or a landscape gardener? 

“Forcing your partner to give up their dreams can come with a heavy cost,” explains Hadfield. “Resentment. Being in a relationship is about mutual support, not stealing your partner’s joy. After Rick died, sure, we had a long talk, but the best way I could honour Rick’s memory was to find out why his mission failed and make sure it never happened again. So, Helene and I checked that our life insurance was up to date and I went back to work.” 

Beginning with a Space Shuttle mission to the Mir Space Station in 1995, Hadfield made three trips into space. His second, in 2001, involved two spacewalks that totalled nearly 15 hours and took him around the world 10 times. 

“When you finally step out of the airlock, the first thing you notice is… nothing,” he says. “You look down expecting to see the ground and there is billions and billions of miles of nothing. The crazy thing was, I’d only been out there a few minutes when I had my own ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment. I went blind. Turned out that it was nothing more than the anti-fog on my visor – a mixture of oil and soap that got into my eyes.” 

The next generation

Does he ever worry about dying? Unlike those in dangerous jobs who often say they always assume it will happen to someone else, Hadfield insists that astronauts come from the opposite end of the spectrum. 

“During takeoff, the most common thing we say to each other is, ‘What’s the next thing that’s going to kill us?’ My philosophy was always, ‘I’m probably going to die, but let’s make sure it doesn’t happen in the next five minutes.’  

“You just carry on trying to defeat the odds. With that length of time in space, strange things happen to your body. Your brain realises that you no longer need calcium because your bones aren’t being put under stress by gravity. Even though I was working out two hours every day, I lost so much strength in my femurs and hips. After I got back to Earth, it took me the best part of six months to relearn how to run.

“Everybody asks about the food and going to the bathroom in space but, to be honest, that’s no problem. The bathroom has a mechanism that does all the work for you and the food is dehydrated – the kind of stuff you might take on long camping trip. We had Christmas dinner on the Space Station, which was… different. Surprisingly, it tasted OK.”

“You look down expecting to see the ground and there is billions and billions of miles of nothing.”

As part of his new role, Hadfield also tours the world introducing packed theatres to science and space exploration.

“You know what I love?,” he says. “We sometimes get three generations of the same family in the audience. The grandparent who’s always been interested in ‘stuff’, the parent who wants to know when Elon Musk will start advertising holidays in space and the young kids who ask me about meteorites while I’m signing their school science books.

“Any grandparents reading this, get those kids interested in science. With all the technology being developed by Elon [Musk], Richard [Branson] and Jeff [Bezos], who knows where we’ll be in 30 or 40 years.”


Hadfield is in regular contact with that current crop of interplanetary pioneers.  

“I’m not sure if Blue Origin [Bezos] and Galactic [Virgin] have quite got the model sorted out, but Elon seems to be moving in the right direction – giving himself time for things to go wrong and learning from those mistakes,” he says. “We will be back on the Moon in the near future, but Mars is a whole other deal. The Moon is 238,000 miles away; Mars is 100 million miles away. With the engine technology we have at the moment, I can’t see it happening, but we will get there eventually.” 

Hadfield has also been working with our own King Charles on the recently launched Astra Carta, a sort of modern Magna Carta which aims to ensure that space is explored as respectfully and sustainably as possible.

“He may not have any technical authority when it comes to space exploration by other governments, but King Charles has this fantastic ability to bring people together,” Hadfield says. “He can get them around a table and he can get them talking. Wouldn’t it be great if the first permanent base on the Moon was a joint effort by America and China? Different countries work together in Antarctica and on the Space Station; let’s make it happen on the Moon.”

He often fields questions from excited young would-be astronauts, although none of his three adult children have followed in his footsteps.

“Deciding to be an astronaut is something that a lot of kids do, but getting up there involves hard work, sacrifice and a heck of a lot more hard work,” Hadfield says. “Do you know how many applicants there were for the last batch of nine NASA astronauts? Around 18,000! I was lucky. Not only did I know what I wanted to be from a very young age, but my innate desire to get up there gave me a work ethic that carried me all the way to the Space Station.

“Like that nine-year-old kid, I still sit in the back yard of our summer house in the Canadian countryside, looking up at the sky. And on the occasional night when I see the Space Station fly by, I can’t help but laugh and give it a wave. That used to be my home!”

The Defector: Let the Hunt Begin by Chris Hadfield (Quercus, £20) is out on October 10 


Written by Danny Scott