Chris Hadfield: Canada’s man in space

His tweets captivated millions, and made a boy from Sarnia, Ont., the most famous astronaut alive

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Photograph by Christopher Wahl; styling by Claudine Baltazar for Tresemme Hair/M.A.C. Cosmetics/Plutino Group

Photograph by Christopher Wahl; styling by Claudine Baltazar for Tresemme Hair/M.A.C. Cosmetics/Plutino Group

“Good morning, Earth!” Chris Hadfield tweeted from the International Space Station (ISS) on March 13. “A Wednesday in space, time for 16 sunrises, a day of research work, and tonight Kevin hands me the spaceship’s keys.” That day, as U.S. astronaut Kevin Ford passed command of the ISS to Hadfield—the first Canadian to assume the role—millions around the world were cheering him on, and not just in Canada. Hadfield, who lived aboard the ISS for five months, has become the most famous astronaut alive. It was a somewhat improbable trajectory for a farm boy from Milton, Ont.: when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Hadfield (now 54) was just nine years old, and Canada didn’t even have a space program.

Hadfield didn’t let that deter him. “I started turning myself into an astronaut,” he says. By the time he blasted off for the ISS, he’d been working toward his goal for decades. A test pilot who was recruited to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1992, he’d flown two previous missions into space. He was the first Canadian mission specialist, the first to do a spacewalk and the only Canadian to board Mir, the Russian space station. Intent on making the most of his last and most high-profile mission, Hadfield shared the experience over social media.

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He found a global following, gaining about 11,000 followers per day across all social media at the mission’s peak. His YouTube videos on topics like why it’s impossible to cry in zero gravity (the tears blob over the eye instead of falling), his tweets describing the fascinating minutiae of life aboard the ISS, and—of course—the thousands of photos he snapped of Earth from space—its sprawling deserts, shimmering coral reefs and glittering cities—drew fans worldwide. Locals swelled with pride to see their hometowns through his eyes, whether it was Dublin, Cape Town or Hadfield’s own birthplace of Sarnia, Ont. Incredibly, most of this social media outreach was done in any spare moment he could find—and free time is a rare commodity aboard the ISS. Yet all that tweeting didn’t get in the way of official astronaut duties. In the week of Jan. 28, the crew managed to perform 71 hours of science, breaking a previous station record.

Even in space, the most rarefied of environments, Hadfield—moustachioed, wielding a Larrivée guitar—comes across as down-to-earth. Millions came to feel like they knew him personally. “He’s so forthcoming,” says Bonnie Schmidt, founder of Let’s Talk Science, a national group that fosters science communication. It partnered with Hadfield on a project that saw Canadian high school students perform a radiation-detecting experiment on the ground while Hadfield did the same in space. “[People] felt they were part of the journey,” she says.


At the end of his mission, Hadfield posted to YouTube what was billed as the first music video shot in space: his cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, with some of the lyrics changed. (It’s been viewed more than 18.9 million times.) In the 1969 hit, Major Tom says there’s “nothing I can do,” yet for Hadfield, contemplating the end of the mission, there was “nothing left to do.” Except, maybe, an 11th-hour spacewalk, which suddenly became necessary when it was discovered the ISS was leaking ammonia coolant. On May 11, two days before he was slated to return to Earth, Hadfield oversaw the spacewalk by U.S. astronauts Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn. “Naysayers could have said, ‘You were doing so many things, there’s no way you could have responded [to an emergency],’” Hadfield told Maclean’s. Yet they did.

On May 13, Hadfield, Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko plunged to Earth aboard the Russian Soyuz space capsule, crash-landing in a Kazakhstani field. Sprung loose from the spaceship and into the dazzling sunlight, pressed down by the strangely novel feeling of gravity, Hadfield and the two other space travellers could barely stand. “I’d learned to talk with a weightless tongue,” Hadfield explains; even moving his lips to speak felt funny. It would take him months of rehabilitation to regain his strength—and it’ll probably be a year, all told, before his bone density returns to what it once was.

Hadfield, who announced his retirement from the CSA in June, hasn’t stopped talking about space since he returned to Earth. (His book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, details the experience.) “It was too good not to share,” he’s fond of saying, and it seems this will remain Hadfield’s mission, and his legacy—to remind us of the wonder of space, and of how connected we all are.