The world’s most famous astronaut has entranced an audience of Edinburgh secondary pupils with tales of space-walking, observing the beauty of Earth from afar, and living off the likes of rehydrated pizza for almost half a year.
Commander Chris Hadfield told a packed room at Liberton High, which included the first minister Alex Salmond, how he was first inspired to go into outer space by watching the 1969 moon landing on television as a boy.
“I’d dreamed of doing this as a kid and it’s amazing to actually be part of it. I never felt homesick, partly because there’s so much to do and concentrate on up there. We could email and Skype our families, even phone some days. But sometimes you do miss the physicality of life on the world.”
Commander Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space, and the former commander of the International Space Station (ISS), returned to earth last May in a Soyuz space capsule – a bumpy landing in windy Kazakhstan – having blasted off the previous December. He retired from the Canadian Space Agency in July.
Christmas 2012 on the ISS, which orbits the earth every 90 minutes, included singing and festivities, and a tree hanging upside down from the ceiling.
His zero-gravity rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, recorded just before he relinquished command, has attracted more than 20 million hits.
Commander Hadfield told Liberton High – chosen for the visit last month because of its links to Edinburgh’s neighbouring Royal Observatory and the school’s strong science and astronomy clubs – about the challenges of his first space walk.
“Something got into my left eye and I was blinded in that eye. It was sore, like pepper oil. A big ball of contaminated tear formed but there was nowhere for it to go because there’s no gravity.”
Houston told him to release some oxygen from his space suit, to try to flush it out. Then the tear went across the bridge of his nose, so for a time he couldn’t see at all.
“To have that happen on my first spacewalk, particularly hearing the oxygen hissing out, was not all enjoyable,” he said with understatement. However, spacewalking, like riding a rocket launch, is generally “a magnificent experience”, said Commander Hadfield, who has published a book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. “Earth looks incredibly beautiful and the stars are perfect points of light – there’s no twinkling because there’s no refraction.”
He was less fond of the food, which includes a lot of “rehydrated, slightly warm pizza”.
Previously Commander Hadfield was assigned to NASA’s base in Houston, Texas, and was the Chief CapCom, the voice of mission control to astronauts in orbit, for 25 space shuttle missions.
He couldn’t run properly for four months after landing “because the blood couldn’t get back up to my head”. He also lost about eight per cent of hip bone, which dissolved because “you don’t need it up there”. It will take about a year to fully regain it.
Yaseen Senussyi, deputy head boy at Liberton, said: “Having Commander Hadfield at the school has been an absolute inspiration. He’s a risk-taker who has focused on what he wanted to do, and achieved it.”
CAPTION: Far out: Commander Chris Hadfield talks to Liberton High students as first minister Alex Salmond looks on