Date: March 11, 2010

Title: Go on a Spacewalk with Astronaut Chris Hadfield


Podcaster: Nancy Atkinson

Links: Chris Hadfield bio –

Video of Hadfield’s description of how to go the bathroom in space –

Description: Ever wonder what it is really like to do an EVA? Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield completed two spacewalks to help in the construction of the International Space Station. He eloquently shares his experiences and thought about human spaceflight.

Bio: Nancy Atkinson is the Senior Editor for Universe Today, a producer/researcher for Astronomy Cast, and the project manager for the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Broken Vulture Art and Spirit Fire Park in Northwestern Ontario, Canada wishing you ‘clear skies’. Visit us at


Hi, this is Nancy Atkinson from Universe Today. It’s always great when life throws you a pleasant surprise. I had posted a video on Universe Today of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s description of going to the bathroom in space. He gives the most eloquent, to the point and hilarious answer I’ve heard on this subject that astronauts say is the most-asked question they get about spaceflight. Chris contacted me, thanking us for posting the video and this gave me the opportunity to chat with him. We talked about flying in space, his views on the International Space Station, and what it is really like to do a spacewalk.

Nancy: Well, hey, this is a wonderful turn of events. I didn’t expect when I posted the video about your going to the bathroom in space talk that I would get the chance to talk with you.

Chris: A friend of mine sent me a note saying, “Hey look at this, your crazy toilet thing popped up again somewhere.” So I thought I’d send you a note for paying me such a big compliment for being eloquent. But in truth, that day, I’ve given that answer countless times. And of course I modify it depending on the age and size of the audience. But for a general audience I’ve given that answer countless times and someone at the Ontario Science Center decided to videotape it and post it and gosh, millions of people have seen it. It’s kind of amazing.

Nancy: Chris, You mentioned that it is not official yet, but that you are hoping to be part of a crew on the International Space Station. What do you see as the positives, or the benefits of the ISS?

Chris: It’s at multiple levels. One of the biggest is just the fact that we have found a way to do this, if you look at history, a very unnatural thing. In the 1980’s I was a fighter pilot intercepting Soviet bombers as they came into North American airspace. I would take a fully armed F-18 and scramble – I was holding 12 minute alerts where we had to be airborne in 12 minutes and I would scramble and fly and race off the coast to intercept Soviet bombers that occasionally were occasionally practicing cruise missiles launches at North America. That’s what I did for a living in the late 80’s. Yet here we are, in my same career, I mean, I went to Mir seven years after that. And during my same career I now am in the position to fly on board an International Space Station that doesn’t pay attention to any borders, that not only has crews from the Soviet Union, Canada and the US, but 16 countries from all around the world where we are jointly learning the lessons of how to leave Earth. That is a huge thing in history. That is unprecedented as far as I know. It is a big step and it’s hard to do. But I think the fact that it is hard to do makes it more worthwhile. If it was just one nation putting some of their people up there on a routine basis it would be technologically interesting but not necessarily historically and culturally significant. So I think one of the biggest lessons of the ISS is that it is international and that we are continuing doing it, we’re finding a way to successfully do it. We’ve not gotten through the building phases, especially with this next flight (STS-130) which I guess you are going to be down there to see, but we have built the most magnificent weightless laboratory ever conceived, ever built by humanity. We have built it as a species and we are going to use it for the next generation of science. And we’ll see where that leads us in the future. That’s huge in my mind.

Second is just straight technology. There’s no way to test things for weightlessness on Earth. All you can do are inaccurate simulations or mathematical modeling. You have to really go up and try stuff and see why it didn’t work. Why don’t our solar alpha rotary joints perform as designed? Why do things keep burning up? Why – longeron shadowing: who knew? How attitude control works, the necessity of multiple supply chains to the same destination. The necessity of systems that were built by different companies that perform the same function because machines inevitably break down. All those things we are learning s we mature through the space station program that are absolutely invaluable if we are going to go further. And we are going to go further. Maybe this year, maybe not. Maybe in a decade, maybe not. But we are and we are learning how to do that as a result of the Space Station. You sure don’t want to learn a lot of those lessons halfway from here to somewhere. You couldn’t just quickly call down to Earth and say on the next Progress we gotta have some of these, because we need them. We didn’t know, but we need them. It’s really an excellent crucible to test our theories.

So that I think the second major part. And the third is something I alluded to which is, there’s this enormous European laboratory, there’s this enormous Japanese laboratory, an enormous American laboratory, and shortly a Russian laboratory with lots of electricity with good controlled environment in orbit for a decade or longer. That has been a long time coming. And it’s there and it’s established and the international partners are really actively involved with over 100 experiments on board. Everything from life cycles of lower mammals to growing trees to see how wood develops in the different contortions without gravity, and through to this summer hopefully launching the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on board the station and potentially putting a VASMIR engine on top of the station to reboost its orbit while testing that engine. There’s terrific science we can do as a result of having built this great building in space. So I really think it’s a lot of other things, but to answer your question, it’s maybe three of the most important thrusts to me are: the historical significance for us as a species, the necessity to test and understand equipment in the environment of space for an extended period – close enough to Earth that we can fix it, and third the opportunity of using the absolutely unique environment we’re in up there to do science that we can’t do on the surface of the Earth. It all happens at the same time.

Nancy: You were part of the STS-100 space shuttle crew that flew to the ISS 2001, and you had the opportunity to do a couple of spacewalks to help in the construction of the station. I once heard you describe one of your spacewalks where you said you were holding on to the side of the space station with one hand with your face into the wind as it were, and you were looking out at the rest of the entire Universe. For all of us that wish we could experience it, what is it really like to do a spacewalk?

Chris: Gosh, I’m not sure how to describe it. I was there for the birth of all three of my children. I did the first F-18 intercept of a bear bomber off the coast of Canada. I represented Canada in a bunch of different levels, including as a fighter pilot. I was a test pilot doing all sorts of very fascinating, challenging, brand new work. I went to Mir, I went to the ISS. But nothing compares to goingoutside for a spacewalk. Nothing compares to being alone in the Universe. To that moment of opening the hatch and pulling yourself outside into the Universe. The bizarre part of it is, it doesn’t just happen you wake up…. Sometimes you’re driving on a mountain road, it’s slippery and you’re doing a bunch of curves and you don’t really see anything because you have a cliff falling away on one side and another cliff up on the other. But suddenly you come around a corner and you say, “Oh wow!” And there you’ve got the whole valley in front of you, or they make one of those nice pullovers whre you can stop and look out, and you do, and you stop and you get out of your car and walk over to the edge and you see where you are, where all those little myopic turns have taken you. A spacewalk if very much like that in that the opening of the hatch is probably step 750 of the day. And step 1 through 749 were all boring and miniscule and each one was in a checklist and you had to do every one right, so you were very painstaking. But suddenly you do this one step, and suddenly your are in a place that you hadn’t conceived how beautiful this could be. How stupefying this could by. And by stupefying I mean, it stops your thought.

You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I knew I couldn’t keep notes up there and I would forget stuff so I sorta resolved to myself that I would verbalize and attempt to, as eloquently as I could, express what I was feeling and what I was seeing so that later I could listen to the recordings of it and remember, and not have missed such an amazing experience. And yet when I listen to the transcripts of what I said, most of it was just, “Wow!” It was so pathetic! But it was just overwhelming! It is like coming around a corner and seeing the most magnificent sunset of your life, from one horizon to the other where it looks like the whole sky is on fire and there’s all those colors, and the sun’s rays look like some great painting up over your head. You just want to open your eyes wide and try to look around at the image, and just try and soak it up. It’s like that all the time. Or maybe the most beautiful music just filling your soul. Or seeing an absolutely gorgeous person where you can’t just help but stare. It’s like that all the time.

So it’s an extremely distracting place to work. But it also really puts yourself into perspective because this human creation is right next to you and its inherently, massively beautiful, like the prow of the Titanic or something where you feel this great human achievement of building this great structure that takes us to a place we’ve never been. But then you notice that even though it is huge and capable, it’s just a speck between everything which is on your left and all the colors and textures of our planet that are just pouring next to you on the right. And you are this little peephole of a microcosm in between those two things, both physically and historically. And you’re very much aware of that the whole time. I’m sort of gushing, but that’s what a spacewalk feels like. It is infinitely worth all the thousands of steps it takes to get there.

Nancy: Well, you gave me the chills.

Chris: It gives me the chills! It’s a great, great thing – I recommend it really highly.

Nancy: I’ll see what I can do.

As we’re recording this, there is a lot of uncertainty as to the NASA’s future, the future of human spaceflight. What would you say to anyone who is feeling a little apprehensive these days?

Chris: We’re coming into a very interesting period in space history in that the US will very likely be without the ability to launch its own astronauts for several years. And we’ve been through that before after Challenger, after Columbia and in between the end of the Apollo program and the start of the shuttle program. The US has weathered those before. It is undesirable, but it is the reality and you can let it depress you or elate you or you can just deal with it, and we just try to deal with it. But at the same time the Russians have a very good, proven, capable, vehicle to take us to space. And the Chinese are learning how to do it and maybe we’ll find an opportunity to work with them. Lots of other agencies are working on things.

But meanwhile, we will continue to live and work on this great space station we’ve built. We’ll only increase, I think, our bonds with the Russians by having all of us train and learn the true elegance of the Soyuz spaceship design. And meanwhile we’ll be working hard on designing the successor to the shuttle. If you look at it superficially it looks like maybe it’s a lull. But it really isn’t. It’s just the next phase that is the very busy life of being an astronaut at NASA.

End of podcast:

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