Something happens when people read or hear the name Chris Hadfield. If you’re like most Canadians, you smile at the mention of our country’s charismatic troubadour of the thermosphere and think back to his world musical “premiere” aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
Perhaps you remember marvelling at Col. Hadfield’s photos from space or recall reading his tweets. Or maybe you’re one of the 1.5 million and counting who shared in the schmaltzy fun of brothers Dave and Chris Hadfield performing their song In Canada on YouTube.
So it’s no great leap for mankind to expect broad smiles all around on October 17 to 19, when our country’s most famous astronaut turns on his charm and showcases his musical talents with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and rapt audiences at The Capitol Theatre.
Celebrated for serenading the planet with his zero gravity rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Hadfield also wrote several songs while commanding the ISS, which will form the backbone of the show.
“I think the unique part of it is, as far as I know, this is the first complete collection of artistic works ever composed off the planet,” Hadfield told Biz X by phone last month.
“So it’s a new thing,” he continues, “that now we are to the level of exploring away from our planet that it is becoming an extension of our culture, an extension of our appreciation of what we’re doing, through art. This is inspired by and is the product of this new human experience, and I was lucky enough to have been at the crossover of them.”
The concert has been several months in the making, Hadfield explains, with some logistical hurdles to overcome.
The process “has some complexities to it,” Hadfield says, “but, with YouTube and Skype and sending files back and forth, you can get a song pretty nicely worked out remotely. Then, when you come together, it feels like you’ve already sung it together 50 times.”
“So we’re just going through all of them now, with an orchestral composer for what the symphony’s going to be playing while I’m humbly up there with my guitar and singing and talking.”
“Some of the songs I wrote completely on my own, one I wrote with my son, Evan, and some I wrote co-operatively with my brother, Dave,” Hadfield adds. One piece to be featured is a song Hadfield wrote with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies – Is Somebody Singing.
“So it’s a bunch of original music,” Hadfield says. “I also think the symphony is doing some more traditional ‘space’ music and maybe some popular stuff like Rocket Man or Space Oddity. I’m looking forward to finding a real nice balance between the beauty of the music and the skill of the orchestra and then the depth of the stories themselves.”
He cites his brother’s song Big Smoke, in particular, as one he has played often in recent years, but which captures the power and audacity of launching humans into space.
“It’s a really thoughtful piece on what it means, historically, when you put it in a 10,000-year context, to be able to do this thing,” Hadfield says.
The song was inspired by Hadfield’s first launch, aboard space shuttle Atlantis. “When a launch is finished, there’s this trail from the engines, pointing to the sky, and it’s quite evocative of what’s happening. The rocket leaves in such a roar – it’s a compelling physical event to leave the planet – but the lingering trace at the end is a line to the sky.”
Hadfield likens this relatively new phase of exploration as a logical extension of our earthbound wanderlust and our need to share the experience.
“When we, as people, move to a new location, the experience is often best recorded and understood through music and poetry and art. So that’s what we’re starting to do with this new human experience of space travel, and Big Smoke is kind of the first step.”
“But to be able to tie in with the music and work with the Windsor Symphony is just delightful,” Hadfield says. “To be able to try and tell the story, not just through words, but through the broad spectrum of music as well, it’s just ideal. And I think the work I’ll do with the Windsor Symphony will lay the foundation for doing something similar with other symphonies. Hopefully, we’re opening the door to something else.”
An ability to open doors and break down barriers seems to be in Hadfield’s DNA. With his familiar refrain, “Good morning, Earth!” Hadfield ignited the Twittersphere every day for five months while aboard the ISS. He became a worldwide sensation, using social media to engage millions of fans by sharing his sense of wonder at the beauty of our planet.
It’s no secret WSO musical director Robert Franz is a big fan.
“I couldn’t be happier that Chris will perform his first-ever full orchestra program on Earth with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra,” Franz tells Biz X.
Franz, whose obligations take him to Boise (Ida), Houston (Texas), Fairbanks (Alaska) and Windsor, recalls the simple request that hooked Hadfield.
“When I won the job here, I called Chris and told him it would be helpful in my new job if he would consider coming to Windsor to do a pops concert, and he said yes,” says Franz.
Hadfield confirms, “It was largely Robert’s idea to make that happen.”
“Our paths had crossed a number of times in Houston while he was working at NASA in preparation for his time in the International Space Station,” Franz continues. “What I know about Chris is that in addition to being a galactic superstar and a talented musician, he is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met.”
Galactic superstar, indeed. Hadfield has even been featured in a Google doodle, and fans the world over still follow his exploits.
As Emma Brockes of The Guardian wrote in October 2013: “Of the hundreds of astronauts who have gone into space, none has humanized it quite the way Hadfield has. It’s weird that goofy guitar playing and exchanging tweets with William Shatner should seem remarkable, but in the context of the space station, it was. For the first time, it seemed like an extension of Earth.”
Hadfield’s career is peppered with historic firsts. In 1992 he was selected by the Canadian Space Agency as a NASA Mission Specialist – Canada’s first fully qualified space shuttle crew member. Three years later, aboard Atlantis, he was the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in space, and the first Canadian to board a Russian spacecraft as he helped build the Mir space station. In 2001, aboard shuttle Endeavour, Hadfield twice walked in space – the first Canadian to do so – and in 2013 commanded the International Space Station – the first and, to date, only Canadian ever to serve as commander of a spaceship.
During his multifaceted career, Hadfield has intercepted Soviet bombers in Canadian airspace, lived on the ocean floor, been NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia, and recorded science and music videos seen by hundreds of millions. His many awards include receiving the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. He was named the Top Test Pilot in both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy and has been inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.
His first book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,” was an international best-seller, and he has been commemorated on Canadian postage stamps, Royal Canadian Mint silver and gold coins and on Canada’s newest $5 bill (along with fellow astronauts Steve MacLean and Dave Williams).
Now, in his new Random House book, “You Are Here: Around the World in92 Minutes,” Hadfield shows us our planet from a fresh perspective.
Hadfield notes that his wife, Helene, suggested the title for the book, which features the Windsor-Detroit region on its cover.
“It’s lovely,” Hadfield muses, “that the world premiere of this music is going to be in Windsor, very close to where I was born and raised (Sarnia) and it’s on the cover of the new book, and yet we chose the two events completely independently. It’s a very nice coincidence.”
The book (released mid-October), contains 150 photographs and Hadfield’s notations, gleaned from a massive stock of images.
“I took about 45,000 pictures,” Hadfield says. “So what do you do with them? So I went through not only the ones I shared through social media, but all the others, and tried to choose the ones that are instructive, or funny, or sad, and then record why each shot was interesting or what you can see in it.”
He then had to convince the publisher and graphic artist to let him write in the book, “and draw circles and arrows and underline things to sort of share the experience,” Hadfield says.
What emerges, he believes, “Is a really different perspective back on ourselves. It’s such a subtle, yet vital experience, to undergo a chance of perspective and the way we see ourselves. And it was really hammered home for me, using social media on board the ISS, the worldwide reaction and the curiosity about self, and about where we all fit in.”
At Evan’s suggestion, Hadfield had used Twitter while in orbit to ask his followers what they would like him to photograph, “and the worldwide response was, ‘I’d like you to take a picture of my hometown.’ At first that made me laugh, but when I thought about it I started to wonder why.”
First of all, Hadfield surmised, people are proud of where they live and they love it, and therefore they want the recognition. “But, the other side of it is, they want to see how they fit in; they want to see themselves from a global perspective and how their home fits in. And very few people have been in a position to take that picture, to provide that piece of the puzzle, so I did it from orbit a lot. So I think this book is a continuation of that.”
Hadfield’s breadth of talent continues to keep him busy, despite his nominal retirement.
“This the fifth time I’ve retired,” he jokes. As a former downhill ski instructor, erstwhile packer-shipper, ex-CF18 pilot, retired test pilot and celebrated astronaut, Hadfield has seldom rested on his laurels. “And I grew up on a farm, so there are lots of professions that I no longer do. But a lot of those things build the foundation for what you’re going to do next.”
Thus, “retirement” means teaching at the University of Waterloo, lecturing around the world, consulting with the aerospace industry and attending book festivals as a featured writer as far away as Australia. It’s just the natural fallout from making space cool again.
“The fundamental interest has always been there,” Hadfield says. “Exploration is part of our nature … and to be sort of at the forefront of it as the first Canadian to command a spaceship and walk in space, it’s a delight. It’s just a delight, with the technology that exists, to be able to share the experience. And I’ve been lucky enough to have such strange experiences that I don’t have to just keep it to myself or wait five years to write some sort of memoir.”
Hadfield also carries fond memories of his previous visits to Windsor.
His first recollection of flying is from the Windsor Air Show in the early 1960s, when his father flew the family down to Windsor from Sarnia. “And we sat on the grass and watched the aerobatic teams fly. I was three or four years old, and it’s my first memory of aviation.”
Later, Windsor played a part in Hadfield’s nascent career.
“It was the summer of 1976, and as a brand new pilot, the very first time that I got into an airplane solo to fly cross-country – because that’s one your important, big, scary thresholds as a new pilot – the airport that I flew to was Windsor,” he explains. “And then, on my 50th birthday, as part of the Windsor Air Show, I flew an historic Canadian F86. So a lot of my aviation, coincidentally, came through the Windsor Airport and laid the foundation for the things I’ve done. So taking the photograph from space brought a smile to my face, because I could look down and see that strip of concrete from orbit and just think about the history.”
He continues, “So it’ll be really nice to get back to Windsor for this concert series in October. The idea of coming through the airport puts a smile on my face, that it’s kind of a reflection of my whole life. I’m pleased to have that small lifelong connection, and to be tying it all together now through art and music is a very lucky place to be.”