Even steadfastly grounded folk became aware of astronaut Chris Hadfield — the first Canadian to walk in space — after he recorded a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Space oddity’ in outer space two years ago. As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies by Pluto on July 14 and presents humankind with its first close glimpse of the dwarf planet, the former commander of the International Space Station, author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, and YouTube sensation — millions have watched the videos he made in space — talks about space travel and how being an astronaut alters your perspective.
It’s been 50 years since Ed White’s maiden spacewalk. Do you think, in another 50 years, space travel may become as commonplace as air travel is now?
You are asking me to predict the future, which is a foolish game (laughs) because you’re asking ‘how quickly will we invent things’. It’s like saying in 1919, how soon will we have jet engines when nobody knows what jet engines are. So I don’t know... we have made huge changes since Alexei Leonov’s first space walk or Ed White’s first space walk and we’ve had people permanently living in space, not just from one country but from 15 nations of the world, for the last 15-and-a-half years.
Do you think the nine-month travel time to Mars is likely to come down?
Well, it’s extremely easy to talk about going to Mars; it’s extremely difficult to actually do. And right now, it’s about six months one way and you have to wait till there is alignment of planets; so a round trip is on the order of two years. And that makes it impossible, basically.
If the Earth was threatened, if we knew that our species was about to be wiped out, then we could mount an effort and send people to Mars. If it was an absolute necessity, then maybe we could do it, but it’s not; it’s just part of human exploration, so there’s no big rush. It is a good long-term goal but it’s still a long, long ways away.
We have to spend, basically, the good part of another generation testing things on the space station, where we are testing a lot of spaceship technology, and then from there to the Moon which is only three days away — so that if we get something wrong, we can come back... we don’t all die and lose everything.
As the NASA administrator Charlie Bolden pointed out, the biggest obstacle is time, and the only way to solve that problem is to go faster, which means we need different engines, different propulsion technology and that’s what got us into space in the first place. It was an invention in propulsion technology, and that’s what we need.
Is feeding the astronauts during the flight to Mars the biggest challenge?
Well, no. If every time you wanted to fly from Delhi to Calcutta, it took six months, how often would you go? You’ll go very seldom and your risk of storms and human problems and mechanical breakdowns drastically increases.
There are all sorts of things we don’t even know about yet — the interplanetary radiation environment, navigation is complex, human psychology. Food is one of [these issues] of course, but so is oxygen, so is water reclamation. So there are lots of things we need to solve.
None of them are permanent show-stoppers. Theoretically, we can solve them all. It’s not like we have to go at the speed of light or anything, but it’s just crazy to try and go to Mars by firing your engines for 12 minutes and then coasting for six months. We need propulsion that can fire the whole way — accelerate halfway and decelerate halfway — and that also gives us a good way to stop and enter the atmosphere and land on Mars.
Lots of things to invent.
So, in the short run, the Mars landings will only happen in Hollywood movies.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with science fantasy; it often inspires people. I like science fiction myself. I’m looking forward to the movie, The Martian.
A former commander of the International Space Station, Hadfield also became a YouTube sensation when he recorded a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Space oddity’ in outer space two years ago. (Photo courtesy: Nasa)
When you look at the Earth from orbit, are you able to notice human influence?
Human influence is extremely visible in some parts of the world. Most of the world is completely untouched by humanity. To fly across the oceans, to fly across the mountains, to fly across the Himalayas, the Gobi desert, the Sahara desert, you see the big, central pan of Africa, so much of the world is untouched.
But most people live in cities; and so people think the world is overcrowded (laughs). Most of the world is still in a pristine state and you get a sense of that when you go around the Earth every 90 minutes.
However, localised climate change caused by humanity is extremely visible.
It’s visible all across India, when you look at the permanent haze that is over a lot of parts of India as a result of all of the exhaust and the campfires and the people exhaling. If you go across China, the pollution in the major cities is so bad, the big cities normally just look like a gray smear.
If you look at the Aral Sea, that’s the fourth-biggest sea on Earth, we completely dried up the fourth-biggest sea on Earth in the last generation or two. That’s enormous localised climate change so that what was a big thriving sea is now a barren desert and the glaciers that are there in the Kazakh mountains downstream no longer get the snow effect off the water, so the glaciers are retreating. So, just to the naked eye, there are parts of the world [where] you can definitely see the impact.
But spaceflight makes you an optimist. Because for the first time in your life, you get a direct, unfiltered understanding of both the size of the world and the age of the world and we tend to measure everything basically in the length of our adult life, about 40 years. We think the 40 years that we are an adult are the most important 40 years in all of the world’s history and that’s just our own myopia, our own self-aggrandisement, and of course that’s false. The world has withstood much worse than us.
What do you think of ISRO’s plans to launch crews into space?
I have watched with interest what the Indian space agency is doing and they’ve had some tremendous successes, but the decision to fly people in space is a big one. The risks are much higher, and therefore [so are] the costs.
So it has to be a really deliberate decision to decide to get into human space flight with the technology that exists right now. So far it has only been Russia, China, and the United States that have been able to successfully do it, but I hope India does. Because they’ll help to invent other ways to do it and try and improve the safety of it and therefore decrease the cost of it.