This interview originally appeared in Issue 11 of Umbrella magazine
Hi Chris, what’s spacewalking like?
Everything pales in comparison to being on a spacewalk – to be alone inbetween the world and the universe is incredible. Once, I was I just holding on to the ship with the fingertips of one hand – there was a weird effortlessness to it. And I was hovering at a speed of 15,000 miles-an-hour! I got myself stable, then let go so the ship and I were floating along together. That felt like magic.
Speed’s a factor in maintaining orbit. Why?
The space station has to go fast to stay in orbit, and there’s nothing to slow you down apart from an occasional atom of oxygen. You can only see the speed when you look down and see yourself crossing Africa in six minutes or the UK in a minute. That gives you the reality of the speed, but there’s no physical sensation as you’re hovering.
Where would you float if you did come away?
Depending on which way you’d thrown yourself off the station, if you’d thrown yourself straight down you’d be in lower orbit and going faster around the world. If you’d thrown yourself up from the world you’d be higher up and going a little slower than the station. Either way your orbit would decay down because of the occasional atomic particle and you’d eventually burn up as a shooting star.
And then there’s the jetpacks…
When we’re doing a spacewalk, we wear a tether that attaches us to the station. If that came loose I’d reach down and pull down a handle on my suit. A little door pops open on the side of my backpack and out swings a joystick. You grab the joystick, turn it on, then by moving the lever on top you fire the thrusters on your suit and fly back to the space station. It’s nothing like George Clooney in Galaxy.
The only way can we train for that is in a virtual reality laboratory. We put a helmet and gloves on and they put us in a visual environment, before pushing us off a space station progressively faster and faster, to show we can do it. It’s a real visual skill. As long as we can do that we’re allowed to do a spacewalk, which is the coolest thing ever.
What’s a typical day like in space?
We get up at 6am, Greenwich Mean Time. We take turns in the bathroom [ISS has suction toilet], brush our teeth – there’s no sinks so we have to swallow the toothpaste – then fix breakfast. We read the day’s plan and news, and then have a briefing with Mission Controls in Houston, Montreal, Alabama, Moscow, Germany and Japan. Then we start work. We run about 200 experiments in a day, so we’re working through them, plus we have to find time to do two hours of exercise. And in terms of staying clean, you take a sponge bath, because that’s all you can do without gravity.
Do you always know exactly what you’re meant to be doing?
There’s a computer screen that displays your schedule. It has a red line moving across it, and tells you what you’re doing for every single day of the six months you’re up there to make you stay efficient. It’s regimented, like a sort of monastic laboratory. We set records for the amount of science done up there. Despite that I still took 45,000 pictures of the world on my last orbit. Whenever I got ahead of that red line I’d float to the big window and take pictures of the world going by.
How do you go sleep when you’re in orbit?
Everyone has a sleep berth like a phone booth. Your sleeping bag is tied to the wall with a couple of shoelaces. You float into the sleeping bag, which has armholes, hold the little door closed and flick off the light. You’re just suspended so you can relax every muscle in your body. When you wake up in the morning the drool is stuck to your face, and without gravity, your tears don’t drain. That’s why I woke every morning with my eyes stuck shut. But it’s the best sleep you’ll ever have – you don’t need a mattress, you don’t need a pillow.
Would you like to go on a proposed Mars trip?
No one’s even talking about designing Mars vehicles or suits. It’s an interesting thought experiment but there’s no reality to it. I’d love to go to Mars, but I want to be involved right from the ground floor, and going for a reason and make sure what we’re doing is worth the risk.
And finally, tell us about the Space Oddity video…
When people heard there was a musician on the space station there were steady requests online to record Space Oddity. My son insisted I did it. I got him to rewrite the words so the astronaut didn’t die at the end! I recorded it, then some musician friends on the ground added the instrumental underneath. Bowie himself said it was the most poignant version that’d ever done. The website where my son posted the video had 23-24m hits. That was pretty amazing.
The photos in this piece are from You Are Here: Around The World In 92 Minutes by Chris Hadfield published by Macmillan Hardback, priced £20. Follow Chris on Twitter @Cmdr_Hadfield