Celebrated astronaut Chris Hadfield rounds off Ireland trip

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield at Titanic Belfast.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield at Titanic Belfast.

He is more accustomed to successful space ships than failed cruise liners.

But yesterday former commander of the International Space Station (ISS) Chris Hadfield rounded off his tour of the island of Ireland with a visit to Titanic Belfast, the centre dedicated to the ill-fated ship.

The astronaut had earlier been to Dublin, Londonderry and the Glens of Antrim as part of a five-day visit arranged by cross-border agency Tourism Ireland, which is filming him for a series of promotional videos.

The idea came about after Commander Hadfield broadcast images of Ireland from space via the website Twitter – as well as a video of him performing Danny Boy on St Patrick’s Day.

In response to his messages from the space station, he said “the warmth of emotion from people all across the island was just delightful”.

Asked why he had got so involved in the Tourism Ireland campaign, he said: “My affinity (for Ireland) really comes from two sources. One is the views that I had of it from space.”

He described how, while aboard the ISS, he would gaze out across the north Atlantic as Earth rotated, like a sailor scanning the horizon for land.

“The first land that you see is Ireland itself,” he said.

“You pick it out on the horizon. To see it that way – the green of it after the blue of the ocean; the rolling, placid nature of it, it’s so visible from orbit.”

The other sentimental connection is his daughter – currently a student at Trinity College, Dublin.

He added: “From orbit, I could see the geology and geography of Ireland. But the really important part is the people.”

Speaking to the assembled press pack at Titanic Belfast yesterday, Commander Hadfield was asked about the dangers of his two spacewalk missions, which saw him don a protective suit and float freely outside the spacecraft for a combined total of nearly 15 hours.

But one reporter also asked about a much more prosaic fear: whether, now he has retired, he feels his Earth-bound life will be a bit of a let-down.

“I really don’t measure my life by maybe a perceived peak,” he said. “I just see it as a long sequence of opportunities.

“I’d like to go back to school, there’s so much stuff to learn. I’m a university professor in Canada, I’ve written a book and there’ll be more books on the way. There’s just a million things to do.”

One of the things he became known for while in space was his music. Many videos were posted on the internet showing him singing or playing guitar as he drifted about inside the space station.

One video, a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, has been seen millions upon millions of times by internet viewers.

He said: “It allows people to see the space station is not just a laboratory and a research outpost, but it’s kind of an extension of art, and humanity itself.”

‘Walking in space? It isn’t much more scary than flying’

Chris Hadfield spoke about the recent Hollywood film Gravity – which depicts the ordeal of astronauts drifting off the ISS after an accident.

“Of course the technical concerns are real, of coming loose during a spacewalk,” he said, branding the film as visually “incredibly realistic”.

“In fact, we wear a tether, but we also wear a jetpack... just in case you do tumble off, so you could get yourself back under control, fly over and grab back onto the space station again. But it’s not something you fret about.

“It’s like when you fly somewhere on Aer Lingus and they tell you there’s a life-preserver under your seat. Do you spend the entire flight grabbing onto your life-preserver? You recognise it’s a possibility, not a high probability.”

At one point he described the moment of stepping outside the ISS, into open space.

He said: “The transition from years of preparation and the claustrophobic confines inside the airlock to where you open up the hatch, grab with your hands and pull yourself out into the universe, maybe it’s very slightly like as portrayed in the movie Titanic – where, if you can stand on the very front and put your hands out, you don’t even see the ship behind you anymore. Instead, you feel yourself floating, alone, across the Atlantic...

“Imagine taking that to an entirely different level; going five miles-a-second and having the whole world turning not underneath you – not the waves below you – but rolling next to you.”

Looking over his shoulder away from Earth, he was then confronted with the entire “bottomless” universe stretching in the other direction.

“To be in between that, holding on with one hand, is a magnificent human perspective,” he added.

“Both from a personal level, but also from a historic level of us starting to leave the planet.”