It's Time to Leave the Capsule

Chris Hadfield's retirement has everyone looking to the future.
Chris Hadfield's retirement has everyone looking to the future.

It's time to leave the capsule

Chris Hadfield's retirement has everyone looking to the future.

During his five months in space, Chris Hadfield snapped 45,000 photos of Earth. These images of glowing cities and landscapes, as seen from the International Space Station (ISS), are now emblematic of his mission. They convey something of the wonder he felt living in space, but also of his deep affection and appreciation for Earth. Having achieved his lifelong goal of commanding the ISS—and sharing the experience with millions on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube—Hadfield is ready to hang up his spacesuit for good. The life of a Canadian astronaut is one lived far from home. After decades in Houston, Russia and everywhere in-between preparing for this final mission, he’s retiring.

Hadfield, 53, delivered the news on June 10 from the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in Montreal, his first public appearance in Canada since touching down in a Kazakhstan field, on May 14. “I’ve decided to retire from government service after 35 years of serving our country,” said the former military pilot, who’s been into space three times. As of July 4, he’ll be pursuing “private interests.” He wouldn’t mention specific plans, other than to keep delivering presentations about space. The move, he explained, has a lot to do with his family. “[I’ll be] making good on a promise I made to my wife nearly 30 years ago,” he said, “that yes, eventually, we would be moving back to Canada.” He heaped praise on the CSA, admitting he was feeling somewhat emotional. Afterwards, Hadfield tweeted a photo of a crowd of CSA staffers applauding him: “To say goodbye to these good people today was much harder than I expected.”

Like a favourite uncle who’s just returned from vacation, Hadfield showed a highlight reel of his trip. He touched on the dozens of science experiments on-board the ISS; his chat with William Shatner; and the time he led a million people, mostly students across Canada, in a singalong of a song he co-wrote with Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies. The ISS is a “lab to study how aging happens,” he said, explaining that the human heart shrinks in space, just as it does as we grow older, and calcium leaches from the bones, mimicking osteoporosis that comes with age.

Hadfield is physically stronger today than he was before the launch, he said, because astronauts exercise two hours per day in space to ward off the damaging effects of zero gravity—but he’s lost five per cent of his bone density in some places. Because his heart and cardiovascular system are still readjusting to the pull of gravity, going for a run makes him a bit light-headed. He expects to feel normal by Labour Day, although recovering bone density could take a full year.

There’s no doubt Hadfield will have a lucrative career as a public speaker, if he wants it. As first Canadian commander of what he calls “the world’s spaceship,” he’s become a bona fide celebrity, sharing the experience through social media in a way that had never been done. His YouTube videos from the ISS—explaining why astronauts can’t cry in zero gravity, or how to make a sandwich in space—have racked up millions of views. His number of Twitter followers climbed from around 20,000 at the launch, on Dec. 19, to well over a million today. Hadfield “brought the excitement of being an astronaut, and the excitement of space travel to the forefront once again,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who hosted Hadfield for breakfast at 24 Sussex Drive before he left for Montreal.

Hadfield’s resignation didn’t come as a surprise to his bosses at the CSA, who’d been informed of the decision in March, while he was still aboard the ISS. But the timing of his announcement, so soon after his return, caught observers off-guard. “I thought he’d move on to other things,” says retired astronaut and Liberal MP Marc Garneau, former CSA president, “but maybe toward the end of the year.” After all, Hadfield is still tying up loose ends from the mission, busy with debriefings and physical rehabilitation.

He must have felt it was the right time to go. One of four Canadian astronauts selected in 1992, his career has spanned two decades. “I’m the last astronaut of my class that’s still around,” he said. (Even so, he hasn’t aged out of the space program. Current ISS commander Pavel Vinogradov is 59; in April, Vinogradov became the oldest-ever spacewalker, when he stepped out the airlock to do maintenance work on the station.)

And it wasn’t clear if or when Hadfield would be able to return to space, if that was what he wanted. Canada only gets a certain number of visits to the ISS, based on its contribution; no Canadian flights are currently assigned. “I think Chris could have flown again, yes,” says Jeremy Hansen, 37, who along with David Saint-Jacques will now comprise Canada’s active astronaut corps. “But we couldn’t see how that would happen in the near future.” Neither Hansen nor Saint-Jacques, who were recruited in 2009, has yet been into space. There was an understanding that, the next time a spot comes up, “they needed to fly the new guys,” Hansen says. “Chris knew that. We spoke about it openly.”

Hadfield’s plans for the future are vague. “I’m hoping to have another 40 productive years on the planet,” he told Maclean’s in May; he’ll be parade marshal at the Calgary Stampede, and he’s spending Canada Day on Parliament Hill. Somewhat uncharacteristically, he is taking his time with what comes after that. Retired astronauts follow many paths. Julie Payette, who was recruited the same year as Hadfield, served as Quebec’s scientific ambassador to Washington, and recently took a job as chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre. Robert Thirsk, who in 2009 became the first Canadian to complete a long duration mission to the ISS, is now a vice-president at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Before entering politics, Garneau worked for the National Speakers Bureau, delivering speeches on his experience in space.

Garneau, who’s been critical of government cutbacks at the CSA, believes Hadfield would be a great choice to lead the agency. Since former astronaut Steve MacLean stepped down as president in February to take a job in Waterloo’s “Quantum Valley”—amid rumours he’d grown frustrated—engineer-physicist Gilles Leclerc has held the post. At CSA headquarters, Hadfield heaped praise on the agency: “Compared to the other agencies of the world, we’re tiny, and yet we accomplish great things.” Given that Hadfield says he’s going to the private sector, it seems unlikely he’ll take over as CSA president, at least for now. With his departure, the CSA is losing an icon, but “there’s no one individual that makes up [a mission],” Hansen says. “Chris was amazing, but it was a huge team that did it. And that team has learned a lot.”

Hadfield will be missed in Houston, where he’s lived for most of the past two decades. He’s played in all-astronaut bands Max Q and Bandella, which do gigs around Houston; his green Mustang convertible is a familiar sight at the Johnson Space Center, where astronauts train. He and his wife, Helene, are part of the tight-knit community there. Hansen and Saint-Jacques view him as a mentor. “Canadian astronauts are in an uncommon situation. We recruit very seldom,” Saint-Jacques, 43, told Maclean’s. “There’s a risk of losing corporate knowledge. Chris has made sure the new guys are up to speed.”

During his five months aboard the station, Hadfield guesses he spun around the world something like 2,500 times. “You get to know the whole planet like your hometown,” says the former farmboy from Milton, Ont., and by now, the whole planet views Hadfield as one of their own. Once he’s settled in Canada, Hadfield said, “I’ll be getting my feet planted on the soil and seeing where the future takes me.”

Maclean's June 24, 2013