Commander Hadfield, The Earth is ready for its close-up

You’ve seen his music video cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that was actually performed in space. You’ve marveled at his zero gravity water demonstrations, in which he actually uses his own tears. If you’re Canadian, you may have even seen him on a Canadian $5 bill. And if you’re a fan-boy like me, then all of this has made you nerd-crush on Chris Hadfield…hard.

Hadfield returned to Earth in May 2013 after five months spent commanding the International Space Station. Since returning, he’s released his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. He was gracious enough to chat with me about all of these subjects, as well as another one near to my heart: photography.

Hadfield first photographed in outer space during his first mission, STS-74, in 1995. As part of his third mission, Expedition 35, he had the opportunity to capture thousands of photographs, thanks to the advent of digital photography.

“I think I took about 45,000 pictures during my time at the International Space Station,” Hadfield told me over the phone, “and tweeted between one and two-thousand of them.” And he did all that while commanding the International Space Station, too. Slacker.

To capture his arresting Earth portraits, Hadfield used a Nikon D2 and D3, as well as lenses ranging from fish-eyes to 400mms. In some instances, he used Russian lens doublers, resulting in focal lengths of 2,400. (Examples of earlier Hasselblad cameras astronauts used during earlier missions can be found here.)“We keep about eight cameras in the main viewing module—or ‘cupola.’” Hadfield explained. “There are so many high-energy protons coming through the station—things that are usually absorbed by our atmosphere—that they destroy the camera sensor. Pixels start dropping out immediately. On some of my lower light pictures you can see the flaws in the imagery.”

“Some of my favorite photos were the ones that seemed as if the Earth was telling me a joke.”

“A cartoon exclamation mark off of Turkey’s coast.”

“Superman’s “S” in South America.”

“A valentine that the Earth sent me.”

But when pressed to pick his favorite, Hadfield mentioned an often-overlooked cloud shot.

“A few months into the flight I was lucky to capture some “noctilucent clouds,” which are way up in the thinnest part of the atmosphere, and are almost always invisible. However, with the perfect weather and lighting conditions, they reveal themselves. One morning while waiting for sunrise I spotted them over the Indian Ocean, flowing like wave crests across the top of the atmosphere. I grabbed my camera, guessed at the settings, and held as still as I could since the light was so low.

“One of the pictures was picked up by Atmospheric Science Magazine, revealing information about the health of our planet. The reason I like the photo is that it’s beautiful, rare, and it had scientific significance.”

Always humble, Hadfield admitted to no formal photography training, attributing the popularity of his photos to his—ahem—“wonderful vantage point,” as well as his five-month tenure there.

“I had time to make mistakes and learn from them. I got to know my subject matter, and also see the subject matter in a lot of different lights and textures.”

Ok. So, needless to say, we had to talk “Space Oddity.” As a musician myself, I had to press Hadfield for details about his unlikely part-time gig as YouTube rockstar. I asked why he thought the video was so popular, at an astonishing 20+ million views at the time of this writing, compared to Bowie’s original video which only had around 8 million.


“Ironic, isn’t it? I think it’s because the song itself is really evocative science fiction, and I laid that down on top of fact, on reality. I took an ephemeral piece of fantasy and wove it into real life. While you’re watching me flying around, you know it’s not a special effect.”

Lastly, I asked Hadfield a question from our Photoshop community.

“What’s the most inspiring thing to experience in space?” I asked.

“The most inspirational thing to see in space is the sunrise. It just blisters up. I would deliberately set my watch, go to the cupola, and watch the glowing rim of the atmosphere as it caught on fire. You can feel the direct, searing heat of the sun on your face, since there’s nothing between you and the sun but a couple panes of glass.”

Even without a camera, Hadfield has a knack for creating a vivid picture, and putting it in your head.

Big thanks to Canadian rock star astronaut Chris Hadfield for taking time out of his insane schedule to chat with me. Ok…now I’m going to listen to Ziggy Stardust while I bask in the sun, down here on Earth. Can you hear me Major Tom?