The Final Frontier

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The Final Frontier

Chris Hadfield’s embarking on his next and most ambitious mission: inspiring people to make the world a better place.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I sat next to a nine-year-old who had never been on a plane before. As he stared out the window, his mother told me that this was his first flight and that he loved all things space. When I mentioned that I would be interviewing Chris Hadfield a few weeks later, his eyes lit up. Not only did he know who the retired Canadian astronaut was, but he also had what seemed like 100 questions for the one-time commander of the International Space Station.

The boy’s awestruck look would be familiar to millions of people around the world who watched Hadfield’s every move in space between December 2012 and May of last year. From the magnificent pictures of Canada he posted on social media to videos explaining how he eats and cries, we all got to experience life as an astronaut. Even if you’d never so much as flown on a plane before, you could relate.

While there have been many well-known astronauts, you can argue that not one has captured the public’s attention like Hadfield has since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. In today’s world, where we measure popularity with Twitter followers, Hadfield, with nearly 1.1 million followers, is far and away the world’s most famous space explorer.

However, he’s technically no longer an astronaut. He retired from the Canadian Space Agency last July and it’s unlikely he’ll ever leave Earth’s atmosphere again. After spending 20 years outside of Canada, Hadfield’s now embarking on his next journey. And, if all goes according to plan, it will be no less inspiring than his last mission.

It’s a cold January morning when Hadfield calls me. It’s the kind of day when you wish you could be anywhere but here, but Hadfield is as bubbly and personable as he was when he was beaming down videos from space. This Milton, Ontario-raised father of three hasn’t been fazed by the Polar Vortex, likely because he’s not yet used to living in Canada again. He calls me on a break from unpacking boxes in his new Toronto abode. “We just bought a house,” he says, “and it feels terrific.”

This is the first Canadian home he’s owned in decades, and it marks a new beginning in Hadfield’s life. Ever since he was eight years old his goal was to be an astronaut, and he did everything he could, including moving to numerous cities and countries, to achieve his dreams. As he moved up the ranks, his ambitions grew until one day he imagined himself commanding the International Space Station, which he, on his second flight to space in 2001, helped build.

Now that his space travel days are behind him, Hadfield has his sights set on more earthly goals, like spending time with his family, writing books – his first tome, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, was a bestseller in Canada and the US – teaching at the University of Waterloo, building a roof for his boathouse and speaking at events across the country. While these pursuits may not seem as awe-inspiring as orbiting our planet, he says he’s approaching post-space-program life with the same focus and dedication that got him to the top of his trade in the first place.

Dare to Dream

If anyone knows how to turn a seemingly far-fetched dream into reality, it’s Hadfield. He decided that he would become an astronaut in 1969, after seeing Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. There was one problem: Canada didn’t have a space program. Others would have let their dream die right there, but Hadfield was determined to do all the things required of an astronaut – and then hopefully, at some point, a Canadian would be chosen to go to space.

Over the years, he gathered all of the skills he’d need to fly a shuttle. When he was a teenager, he received his glider pilot licence and then joined the Canadian Army, where he flew several types of airplanes. He also got an engineering degree from the Royal Military College and a master’s in aviation systems from the University of Tennessee’s Space Institute. Yet his path to space still wasn’t clear.

His dream nearly ended in 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and killed its seven crewmembers. He was a pilot in the air force then and was married with two kids. “I was making virtually no money, and then the space shuttle blew up and the space program ground to a halt,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why am I even pursuing this? It’s obviously never going to happen.’” He was ready to try something more practical – what exactly, he can’t remember – but his wife talked him out of it. “She said, if you give up on your dreams because of these pressures, you would regret it for the rest of your life,” he says.

His persistence finally paid off when, in 1992, he was accepted into the Canadian Space Agency – two years after the agency was created – and went to space for the first time in 1995. With his dreams of space flight now realized, he set his sights on becoming the first Canadian to command the International Space Station. But that dream was also nearly quashed. Nine months before he was set to go, he had an intestinal adhesion that needed surgery. The last thing an astronaut wants is to get sick. “You can wait years and years to get your chance, and then something happens medically and you don’t go,” he says. “This stopped me cold. I wasn’t going on that space station flight.”

During his six-month recovery he lobbied his bosses hard to let him fly. “I was trying to convince them that I was a worthwhile medical risk,” he says. It was a challenging time. Hadfield was still training to become the ISS commander while working hard to recover from his illness – he lost 20 pounds in the process. The hardest part, though, was coming to grips with the fact that he had little control over the situation. “It was something random, and not a lot of it was in my power,” he says. Still, he stayed focused on his mission and, fortunately for everyone, was allowed to go.

Go for the Goal

Hadfield wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today without an intense focus on achieving his goals, and he’s approaching his post-space life with the same determination. And it’s not just work-related accomplishments he’s after. He says he wants to learn how coniferous trees evolve and reproduce, which may seem like something he could just find out on the Internet, but Hadfield is not about to take the easy way out. “I might say, I’m going to spend the weekend learning everything there is to know about pine cones, and by Sunday night I’ll have changed who I am and moved myself slightly closer to something I like in life,” he says.

The often philosophical Hadfield is a big proponent of pushing yourself to be better. “Give yourself a challenge and then change yourself to be closer to that dream,” he says. “By Sunday night, you’ll be a slightly different person.”

“Give yourself a challenge and then change yourself to be closer to that dream. By Sunday night, you’ll be a slightly different person.”

Hadfield has “thousands” of goals, he says, but one big one is to continue the work he did on the space station. Not the science or the flying but, rather, the inspiring. He regularly visits schools and gives speeches about life on the ISS, what he learned about the world during his six months in space, and how to achieve your dreams.

While Hadfield will always be remembered for being the first Canadian space station commander, it’s his work as an inspirational and motivational speaker that could have the biggest impact on our planet. By retelling his own story and by showing the incredible sights he’s seen, he’s making people realize that anything is possible. And the more people who pursue their dreams, the better off we’ll all be. “It’s necessary to inspire children, who are right on the edge of so many possibilities,” he says. “You can’t raise the standard of living without new inventions or new technology or without questioning things and pushing back, and that comes with inspiring and challenging young people.”

Hadfield’s seen how the space program has influenced innovation. He’s given talks at leading technology companies, like Twitter and Tumblr, and while no one there has been an astronaut, they all talk about how the space program has allowed them to dream big. “They’re fascinated with space exploration, and it pushes their brains and drives them to recognize the fabric they belong to,” he says.

Not all astronauts speak about their experiences like Hadfield does. He could live out a quiet retirement, but after what he’s seen in space, he can’t just sit still. “I’m one of the first human beings to have left Earth on a semi-permanent basis,” he says. “To keep that to myself would be very short-sighted and selfish.” Sharing his experiences is crucial and important work, he says. “The more information you have, the more likely you are to help someone else – especially a young person – make better decisions in life.”

It’s been a few months since I sat next to that nine-year-old on that flight to Mexico, but I can’t help but wonder how Hadfield’s words will influence him one day. As he stared out the airplane window, looking down on Earth for the first time, he was probably as amazed at what he was seeing as Hadfield was the first time he flew into space. This kid is just starting to figure out life’s possibilities, and if Hadfield can play a small part in helping him achieve his dreams, then that’s a greater reward than anything he accomplished in space. “To kids, life is still a possibility,” he says. “They see it as something that’s yet to happen. They’re more engaged and they’re curious, so why not talk to them over Skype from the space station while I’m eating lunch? You can’t just keep life to yourself.”

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