When astronaut Chris Hadfield returned from his last mission in space, his body was "really, really confused." After five months in orbit, "You can't balance. You don't inherently know which way up is," the first Canadian to become Commander of the International Space Station told host Ophira Eisenberg at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Back on the ground, Hadfield confessed that although he loved the experience, he doesn't miss space. "We're at the stage now of not just seeing if we can get there, but starting to colonize another planet. That's what interests me. The stuff that's happening, and coming up, and being invented. ... I think there's too much cool stuff going on to just reminisce."
Hadfield decided he wanted to be an astronaut when he was just nine years old. But "it's so far in the future, especially if you're Canadian— it's like, I mean, come on," he joked. "I thought, you know, well I'm gonna work on it, but I'm never gonna count on it." He kept his expectations low, and he told Eisenberg that he never allowed himself to believe he have achieved his goal "until you've gotten into the rocket, and the engines have worked, and they blast you into space, and the engines shut off, and you look around and you go, 'I am here. This is for real. I am an astronaut right now.'"
Among the many simple tasks Hadfield had to relearn in space, singing and playing guitar was a strange one. He offered to Eisenberg and the audience that in order to simulate what it's like, "Put your guitar down next to the wall, [and] stand on your head. Stay on your head for two or three hours. ... And while you're upside down standing on your head, then pick up the guitar with no strap and play."
After adjusting to these circumstances, Hadfield recorded a video of himself covering David Bowie's "Space Oddity." The video became wildly popular on the internet— garnering over 38 million views. Hadfield graced the Ask Me Another audience with a performance of an original song, "Daughter of my Sins," accompanied by the full gravitational force of Jonathan Coulton.
Then we challenged this former downhill ski instructor to a game about the science behind winter sports. It turns out that the only thing more terrifying than space travel is doubles luge!
On why astronauts need to rebuild their skeletons after returning to Earth
What we've found is the first time you pee in space, your urine is already full of your skeleton— of the minerals and calcium that's in your skeleton. Your body senses right away that it doesn't need to build this heavy skeleton to fight gravity if there isn't any.
On wanting to be an astronaut as a kid
When I was born there was no such thing as an astronaut. No one had ever flown in space. It's still a brand new thing.
On if he believes in alien life
Probably. Because there's an unlimited number of planets. But we haven't found evidence yet so we don't know, we're looking. But that's why we're exploring— we want to answer that question.
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton, here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He was the commander of the International Space Station. Please welcome Chris Hadfield.
EISENBERG: Chris, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
CHRIS HADFIELD: I'm glad to be here. Thank you very much.
EISENBERG: Yes, I'm glad to have you.
EISENBERG: You were the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.
HADFIELD: That's true.
EISENBERG: Your last mission was five months long?
EISENBERG: And it was about five years ago now.
HADFIELD: That's all correct.
EISENBERG: OK. So right when you come off of a mission, where - what state is your body in?
HADFIELD: Really, really confused. You can't balance. You don't inherently know which way up is. If you stand up, your body has forgotten that your blood has weight. So it doesn't push it all the way up to your head, so you faint. So we actually wear, like, Spanx when we get back so that it's squeezing the bottom of you the whole time to get the blood up to your head.
HADFIELD: And then it takes - some things you get back in a couple of days, you feel OK. About a month, you feel normal. Took about four months for running to feel right but a year and a half to grow my skeleton back.
EISENBERG: I can't just let that go.
EISENBERG: Grow your skeleton back?
HADFIELD: Well, I had a skeleton. It was just brittle. We've actually had a couple astronauts fall and break their hip within a few months of getting back. So we're careful. And when you first get to space, they have a look at how your body's adapting to being weightless. And so they want all your body fluids when you get there. They collect your urine when you first - and that's something else you probably want to ask about. But they collect...
HADFIELD: They - what we found is the first time you pee in space, your urine is already full of your skeleton - of the minerals and calcium that's in your skeleton. Your body senses right away that it doesn't need to build this heavy skeleton to fight gravity...
HADFIELD: ...If there isn't any - yeah.
EISENBERG: That makes perfect sense. Wow.
So you're a kid. You're 10 years old, and maybe, like a lot of kids, you were inspired. And you were like, I want to be an astronaut.
EISENBERG: At what point in your life did you find yourself saying - oh, my goodness, I'm really going to be an astronaut?
HADFIELD: I decided when I was 9 to try and turn myself into one. But it's so far in the future, especially if you're Canadian. It's like...
HADFIELD: I mean, come on, you know? Canadians - we watch people fly in space. We don't fly in space. And...
HADFIELD: But I thought, you know, well, I'm going to work on it. But I'm never going to count on it. And so in fact, even though you're pursuing it and even when one day you get the phone call from the president of the Canadian Space Agency saying - would you like to be an astronaut? - you still think it's sort of a trick.
HADFIELD: And you never actually allow yourself to believe that you're going to be an astronaut until you've gotten into the rocket and the engines have worked and they blast you into space and the engines shut off. And you're looking around and you go, I am here.
HADFIELD: This is for real. I am an astronaut right now. It's pretty cool.
EISENBERG: So do you miss space?
HADFIELD: No. I...
HADFIELD: No. I mean, I loved the experience. It was great. I served as an astronaut for 21 years - great, fascinating. I couldn't get up early enough every single day. It's a really interesting, challenging job. But I don't spend a lot of time missing stuff, you know?
HADFIELD: I'm really interested in what's going on right now. Like, there's this three-part rocket that's the biggest rocket in the world that is big enough to take things and people to Mars. So that's going on. The Chinese are landing something on the far side of the moon this year that is not only to try and understand that part of the universe, but they're landing life - a little capsule that has silkworm and a potato in there. I think they got that from "The Martian."
HADFIELD: But in truth, it's a little biosphere that the Chinese - they're trying to see if you just provide water and heat, if that will sustain and reproduce and become a little living colony on the moon. We're at that stage now of not just seeing if we can get there but starting to colonize another planet. That's what interests me, the stuff that's happening and coming up and being invented. I'm very pleased with the stuff I've had a chance to do.
HADFIELD: But I don't spend much time missing things. I think there's too much cool stuff going on to just reminisce.
EISENBERG: And when you were on the International Space Station, you played guitar.
HADFIELD: I did.
EISENBERG: You obviously did this amazing cover of Bowie's "Space Oddity," the first music video ever shot in space. I imagine you had to get some special clearance from NASA on that.
HADFIELD: We didn't ask actually.
HADFIELD: Sometimes forgiveness is the better course.
EISENBERG: Yes, yes.
HADFIELD: I mean, it was - actually, my son sent me a note saying, hey, Dad, you should re-cover "Oddity." It'd be really cool. I'm like, "Oddity"? The astronaut dies in "Oddity."
HADFIELD: That is not a good song to sing up here, son. So my son said, I'll rewrite the words so the astronaut lives. Will you do it? So I did it. And then my son said, Dad, you've got to make a video. You're in space, you know. And I said, I'm busy up here, you know. I'm not...
HADFIELD: But he said, if you don't do it, you'll regret it forever. So one Saturday, for an hour, I floated around singing along with the - myself, you know, the audio recording of myself. And then my son and his buddy put that video together. And yeah, it came out really nice. And Bowie loved it, which was the best part.
EISENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. Is it very - I mean, you're playing guitar. It must be very difficult to play guitar in space.
HADFIELD: It's weird because guitars are designed to have gravity to hold it in place. Either you sit down, and that curve on the bottom of the guitar goes on your knee, or the guitar is hanging on a strap. Gravity holds your guitar there. If you want to know what it's like to play guitar and sing on a spaceship, here's what I recommend you do. Put your guitar down next to the wall, stand on your head, stay on your head for two or three hours.
HADFIELD: No, really. So the fluid can shift to your head and fill up your sinuses and your make your tongue all swollen, just like it feels in space. And then while you're upside down, standing on your head, then pick up the guitar with no strap and play. That's what it feels. It's that weird and different. And you have to kind of relearn how to both sing and play up there.
EISENBERG: So it must be very nice to play on ground.
HADFIELD: It is nice to be back...
HADFIELD: ...With the blood draining out of my head.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) With the blood draining fading out of your head. So you're part of a new series on National Geographic called "One Strange Rock," directed by Darren Aronofsky and hosted by Will Smith. This showcases perspectives about Earth from people like you. Can you tell us more about it?
HADFIELD: Darren Aronofsky is such an interesting artist. The way he sees things is different than most. And he put in the sort of overall guidance of how they should film it and then - Will Smith is just a lot of fun, of course. He's like - plays the every man and asking all the standard questions. I mean, when I was born, there was no such thing as an astronaut. No one had ever flown in space. It's still a brand-new thing. And therefore, seeing the world that way is new.
And so for us to talk about what it actually looks like - an unfiltered, long-term view of the world and talking through the scientific issues that make the world run of how everything's interconnected but showing it in a really compelling visual manner - it's just beautiful to watch. And it's coming out this year.
EISENBERG: All right. Chris Hadfield, we know that you've had to answer some of the same questions about space quite often. So we thought we'd try to cover as many of them as we can in a space FAQ lightning round.
EISENBERG: So I'm going to put 60 seconds on the clock. So try to keep your answers as short as possible - like, just a few words. And here you go. Here's some quick-fire, lightning-round questions about space.
EISENBERG: Favorite space food.
HADFIELD: Shrimp cocktail.
EISENBERG: Interesting. What's the first thing you ate when you got back to Earth?
EISENBERG: When you were in space, what earth activity did you miss the most?
EISENBERG: All right. All right. Good.
EISENBERG: What other one?
EISENBERG: What does the International Space Station smell like?
HADFIELD: A hospital.
EISENBERG: In your opinion, Pluto - planet or not a planet?
EISENBERG: Most realistic space movie.
HADFIELD: "Apollo 13."
EISENBERG: "Star Wars" or "Star Trek?
HADFIELD: "Star Trek."
EISENBERG: And finally, are there aliens?
HADFIELD: Probably - because there's an unlimited number of planets. But we haven't found evidence yet, so we don't know. We're looking. But that's why we're exploring. We want to answer that question.
EISENBERG: Sounds like you had to say that because it's classified.
HADFIELD: No, I'm Canadian.
EISENBERG: So what do the aliens look like?
HADFIELD: I could say whatever I want.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK. Probably. Fantastic. Chris, we know that you can play "Space Oddity" in space, but can you play it under the full gravitational force of Jonathan Coulton?
HADFIELD: I can try.
EISENBERG: Let's bring out Jonathan.
HADFIELD: Look. I have a guitar right next to me.
EISENBERG: There we go.
HADFIELD: Ready, Jonathan?
COULTON: I'm ready.
HADFIELD: (Playing guitar, singing) Ground Control to Major Tom. Ground Control to Major Tom. Lock your Soyuz hatch and put your helmet on. Ready? Ten. Ground Control - nine - to Major Tom - eight.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Seven, six...
HADFIELD: (Playing guitar, singing) Commencing countdown - engines on.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Three, two...
HADFIELD: (Playing guitar, singing) Detach from station, and may God's love be with you. This is Ground Control to Major Tom. You've really made the grade. And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear. But it's time to guide the capsule, if you dare. This is Major Tom to Ground Control. I've left for ever more. And I'm floating in a most peculiar way. And the stars look very different today. For...
JONATHAN COULTON AND CHRIS HADFIELD: (Playing guitar, singing) ...Here am I, sitting in a tin can. Last glimpse of the world. Planet Earth is blue, and there's so much left to do.
EISENBERG: Chris Hadfield will be back to play his ASK ME ANOTHER challenge later in the show. Chris Hadfield, everybody.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.