The astronaut helping students' dreams to lift off

9th January 2015 at 00:00
Inspiring teaching can take you anywhere, says Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield became famous not just for doing his job but because he told the world all about it, as he orbited 250 miles (400km) above the Earth.

While he was commander of the International Space Station (ISS), Colonel Hadfield estimates that he took 45,000 photographs of the Earth. He tweeted a number of these, as well as videos of him brushing his teeth, washing his hands and singing David Bowie's Space Oddity.

And although his Instagram account describes him as a "former Canadian astronaut and spaceship commander" and his Twitter handle is @Cmdr_Hadfield, Colonel Hadfield also refers to himself as a teacher.

"When you are asked to do something really rare or unique on behalf of other people, you are basically an emissary of other people," he tells TES. "You are seeing the world in a way no one else gets to and starting to understand what it's like to meet the planet itself. It is a really important part of that responsibility to share it in the best way you can."

He estimates that he has spoken to at least 1,000 schools over his 35-year career as an astronaut. "I've been a teacher my whole life," he says. "I've taught people to fly, I've taught spacewalking, I've taught leadership, I've taught crew resource management, I've taught robotics and I'm a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

"I tie in using Skype to talk to elementary and middle schools on a weekly basis, with schools primarily across Canada. We call the programme `On the Lunch Pad'."

Colonel Hadfield recently toured the UK promoting his latest book, You Are Here: around the world in 92 minutes. As he was being whisked between bookshops and schools everywhere from Glasgow to Bath, he also found time to answer pupils' questions through social media.

Questions included: "What was the most difficult thing about adjusting to life in space?" His answer was not being surrounded by vast, unimaginable emptiness but "tying your laces on your trainers. Because both hands and one foot are busy, so there's nothing to keep you stable, and you float all around the spaceship and bang into things just trying to put your trainers on."

This small, almost trifling annoyance demonstrates that despite having an extraordinary job, astronauts are just like the rest of us - something Colonel Hadfield is keen to underline to the students he speaks to. "I think invariably young people have more interesting questions than adults," he tells TES. "The reason being that most adults have decided they are not going to fly in space, so questions are not particularly penetrating, whereas a young person still has it as a possibility so they are much more specific."

In his TED talk "What I learned from going blind in space", Colonel Hadfield speaks about when he first flew in space, in a 1995 shuttle mission. The odds of dying in a shuttle launch at the time were about 1 in 38; he woke up that morning knowing that by the end of that day he would either be in space or dead.

Later, clad in his spacesuit and crawling into the spaceship on his hands and knees, he realised that the dream he had had when he was nine years old was now about to come true.

"You have taken the dreams of that nine-year-old boy, which were impossible and dauntingly scary, and figured out a way to reprogram your primal fear," he says. "That enabled me to come back with a set of experiences and a level of inspiration for other people that never could have been possible otherwise."

Colonel Hadfield has inspired thousands of children and adults, and his attitude to science education is optimistic. "Our level of worldwide scientific literacy has never been higher," he says. "When you look at the number of people who have access to education and access to the internet, it is tremendously enabling; anybody who has any curiosity can look up any fact they want to pursue. It really bodes well."

And, he adds, he will never forget his own inspiring teachers.

"Every single one of us is for ever indebted to the people who have taught us," he says. "Sometimes the lessons came in a formalised setting and sometimes not, but we are all in debt to the people who took the time to teach us the skills that we have.

"I very much feel that way towards all the teachers that have taught me. And I also think that if someone has taken the time to teach you something, you now have a debt and you really owe it to make sure that someone else gets an education as least as good as your own.

"It is the only way that we can have the quality of life that really enables people to succeed."

Questions that are out of this world

Chris Hadfield called on schoolchildren in the UK and Ireland to ask him questions on Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #personalrocketscientist

Oisin, aged 6, asked: "What does space smell like?"

Answer: "A bit like gunpowder or brimstone, like a witch has just been there."

Liam, aged 9, asked: "How did you have enough oxygen to stay in space so long?"

Answer: "The space station is sort of like a big metal bubble and slowly we use up the oxygen, so every ship that visits us brings a little bit more oxygen. That's how we stay alive in space."

Sam asked: "How many asteroids did you see from the ISS?"

Answer: "The Earth gets hit by 100 tonnes of meteorites a day but you don't see them very often. I only saw one, so even though asteroids are flashing by the space station all the time I only saw one in six months in space."

More questions and answers at


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