By Jason Herring, September 10 2015 —
Chris Hadfield has lived an extraordinary life. He was the first Canadian to walk in space, spent two months as the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and has since become a global icon and an ambassador for space exploration.
The retired astronaut has now moved towards the arts, as he’s set to release his debut album, Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can, on October 9. The album holds the impressive distinction of being the first collection of music partially recorded in outer space.
Hadfield, who has been an avid musician for most of his adult life, says that playing music in space was a way for him to pass time when he wasn’t working. He used an acoustic guitar brought to the ISS years earlier by NASA psychiatrists.
“Living on a space station for five months, just to stay psychologically healthy, you need to have some alternate track of mental pastime. Some of the astronauts spend a lot of time talking to home or writing blogs or just taking pictures, but in my case, just like on earth, I wrote and played music,” Hadfield says. “With a guitar up in the Space Station, late at night just before bed it felt natural to play, just as I do on Earth. I tried to express myself, thinking about what I did that day, what I saw, and what it means to me.”
Though pieces of Space Sessions were recorded on the ISS, most songs were written on Earth by Hadfield in collaboration with his brother and son. But some songs, like the introspective “Daughter of my Sins,” were conceived entirely during Hadfield’s time in space.
“[For “Daughter of my Sins,”] I came up with a little guitar lick and then I was thinking of lyrics all day long while working on a nanoparticle testing experiment,” Hadfield says. “That night I put together the equipment and recorded it. It’s an interesting song about introspection and looking at the vastness of the Earth and thinking about how the two [ideas] are connected.”
Hadfield’s foray into music isn’t entirely unexpected — the astronaut posted a viral cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to YouTube in 2013 while serving as commander of the ISS.
Due to the absence of changing humidity and temperature on the ISS, Hadfield says the guitar stays in tune remarkably well. But playing and recording music in a zero-gravity environment poses plenty of unexpected difficulties.
“Without gravity, there’s nothing to rest a guitar on your knee, or have it hang stable under your strap. It hangs, it floats, and when you try and move your hand up and down the neck, the guitar just takes off on you,” he says. “Even though you know how to play guitar, you’re suddenly an extremely messy guitar player because the guitar won’t stay put.”
Singing in space presents even more challenges. Due to the absence of gravity, sinuses don’t drain in space, so it’s difficult to sing with the same resonance that’s possible on Earth. Hadfield says you learn to adjust.
“Trying to relearn to play guitar fairly cleanly and hit the notes properly, it was just a learning process. Like learning to sing with a cold or singing on stage, it’s just a slightly different version of singing. Eventually, I got the hang of it,” Hadfield says.
The release of Space Sessions is partially intended to help build an interest in space, which is something Hadfield has worked towards since retiring as an astronaut. When asked if he’s optimistic about the future of space exploration, Hadfield answers with expected enthusiasm.
“We’ve only been exploring off the surface of the planet since 1957. That’s 68 years -— not even one lifetime — and yet we left earth 15 years ago when we started living on the ISS in the fall of 2000. We’ve got our first permanent home away from the planet. We’ve just flown by Pluto and seen things no one expected. We’ve got rovers roaming around Mars. We’re using the space around the Earth to do everything from GPS to predicting hurricanes. It’s an amazingly busy and integral time for space exploration. So yeah, I’m an optimistic guy.”
Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can will be released independently on October 9.