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Lessons In Combining Art And Science (And Taking Amazing Photos) From Rockstar Astronaut Chris Hadfield

Astronaut, social media expert, and music video star Chris Hadfield talks about art and science as two parts of one whole, and talks us through his eye-popping space photos.

If there’s one thing that Chris Hadfield has proven it’s that science and creativity are not strange bedfellows–and they can make beautiful music together. The retired Canadian astronaut was a fighter pilot and flew three missions to space before rising to fame as the social-media-savvy Commander of the International Space Station last year. While Commanding the ISS, Hadfield was as likely to perform an experiment (often using water because who doesn’t love water in zero gravity?) as he was to pick up a guitar to inform and delight his terrestrial audience. In fact, the world went a bit nuts when Hadfield performed David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (recently restored to YouTube) while in orbit and then shared the video of it on Twitter.

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The fervent reaction was partly due to the awesome irony of a real-life astronaut taking the role of Ziggy Stardust–while in space. But people were also legitimately shocked that the guy could sing and perform–really well–as if it were unreasonable that someone so accomplished in the world of science would have the capacity to be artful. He was the rock star spaceman.

Chris Hadfield in the Cupola

To Hadfield, it was much ado about nothing. Rather it was merely an entertaining manifestation of the fact that art and science perpetually overlap. “It’s funny that we say arts and sciences as if they’re different things, that we say arts and leisure and science and technology as if the two have never met each other, but they don’t know that they’re separate. How could anything be more scientific and mathematical than music? Look at a musical score. Think of what harmony is or tempo and timing and volume and vibrato. All of that is scientific and mathematical, yet we do it almost exclusively for the beauty of it.”

Art and science, he says, are two parts of one whole. “If you really want to communicate with someone you don’t use science. Science is an organization of curiosity and ideas–and you have to talk about how you organize it, about the scientific method, you have to understand fundamentals because while it can be artistic, you can’t build a Blackberry device artistically–but art is a fundamental way to express the wonder of being human. If you really want to communicate with someone, it’s best not to show a graph, but to express something artistically.”

Hadfield, now retired, has added photography to his artistic repertoire and with a camera he’s expressed the unique experience of what Earth looks like from space. During his six months aboard the ISS he took a lot of photos–about 45,000 of them, despite the fact that, as Hadfield says, “NASA doesn’t give us one second to take pictures.” NASA, he says, just knows that “that if you’re a human being in a magnificent place, all they have to do is provide cameras and you’ll find time to take pictures.” He’s now released the best of them in You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes, a photography book that includes 195 stunning glimpses of the planet below.

English Moors, Yorkshire

The book is equally beautiful, instructive, and whimsical. Organized by continent, some photos look like gorgeous tapestries, such as one of Oceania or agricultural swaths of England or Russia. Others are full of whimsy, like the many land formations that resemble animals, or the pages on which Hadfield draws parallels between the landscape and everyday objects, such as an egg, a mouth X-ray or punctuation marks. Many of the pages are simply stunning, featuring the bluest waters, the wispiest clouds and the vastest horizons, while others focus in on significant landmarks like the Eye of the Sahara or an erupting Mount Etna. Then there are the photos that show the human impact, from mesmerizing light grids of cities to the marks of oil production and deforestation.

The collection of images is, to Hadfield, a latter day version of the early prehistoric cave paintings he once visited in the South of France. After visiting them he was most struck by the detail; how smooth rock was chipped away so the ochre pigment would adhere. “The person who did it was an artist. I know nothing about their civilization. I don’t know how they lived, I don’t know if they had religion, I don’t know what they knew or how they talked but I immediately understood them as people and felt this enormous bridge because of someone with talent expressing their way of being human through art,” says Hadfield.

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“To me, it’s exactly the same. In trying to express the experience of space flight, the science and engineering of it is really important but the art of it is what matters. That was also very much the genesis of making this book–to let people see something that bridges across the gap of time and distance so that they can maybe better understand what it really means.”

Kashary farms, Russian Fields

If You Are Here is an artifact illustrating the experience of space flight–Hadfield’s space flight in particular–it makes sense that some of his favorite photos hold personal significance.

Once such photo is the composite shot of the Panama Canal (which is unfortunately not available for promotional use). In addition to all of the aerospace physics, Hadfield says astronauts also get trained in photography (he’s also qualified as an IMAX photographer and helped make two IMAX movies). “People taught us what to look for and what parts of the world are really rare to see,” says Hadfield. “Like to see the whole Panama Canal is almost unprecedented. It’s never a sunny day across the whole isthmus there, just because of the weather and the humidity of it. There was one day on orbit where there was just a wisp of cloud. I’d waited three space flights, six months of my life, for a clear day over Panama. Yeah, it’s great that I got a complete strip map of the canal but mostly that picture is important to me because my instructors have been asking me for 15 years that if I ever have a clear view of the Panama Canal, take it!”

Hadfield is also partial to a photo he took of the Canadian Forces air show team the Snowbirds for many reasons. Yes, it’s because he used to be an Air Force pilot himself, and yes, it’s because it’s from Canada, but it’s mostly significant because it never should have worked.

Lake Burnside, Western Australia

“You never see anything moving on Earth because we’re going to so fast. If you’re going five miles a second, you go over things before they have time to change. So the world becomes a still life. The only moving things you might see are maybe you’ll pick out an airliner pulling a contrail,” he says.

The ambition to capture the Snowbirds in flight came from fellow astronaut, friend and pilot, Jeremy Hansen. “He sent me a note one day saying, ‘Hey, the Snowbirds are doing their work ups to get ready for the air show season and they’re out in Comox BC. If they turn their smoke on over the water do you think you could see them?’ I was like, why don’t we give it a try.”

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Hadfield had to set his alarm and wake up in the middle of the night, since the ISS is set to Greenwich Mean Time. Even then, with all nine Snowbirds flying in formation over the bluest water they could find, it was still a lark. “The station was all dark and I moved to the Cupola window, grabbed the camera and as we were coming across the Pacific I thought there’s no way I’ll see them. Then, I spotted Vancouver Island and the start of the Rockies and I couldn’t believe it. I could see it with my naked eye. I could see this white line moving over the blue and I started laughing out loud. I grabbed my camera and the timing worked out so exquisitely–as I was coming overhead they started their big turn at the end. It was one of the only times in my whole space flight experience that I saw evidence of something being alive on Earth,” he says. “As an air force pilot myself it was just a great crossover of time and space and history to be able to grab that photograph.”

Cuba and Florida

The confluence of his many life experiences in this one image is illustrative of Hadfield’s view of life–one that’s essential to anyone dancing along to both art and science. Having grown up on a farm “with a lot of machinery” and influenced by a very musical mother, Hadfield credits his career trajectory to “a great encouragement of individual curiosity and a great dissatisfaction with not understanding what’s going on.”

“We’re all a cumulative product of all of the things we’ve been exposed to in life,” he says. “Don’t just let yourself float through and not reap anything from what’s going on around you. Try to understand why. If you have a question, then get the answer. And once you have that answer go on to the next thing and slowly try to accumulate a better understanding of everything around you.”

BE SURE to click through the gallery above to read Hadfield’s commentary on capturing his stunning photos while working on the ISS.

Proceeds from the sale of You Are Here go to benefit the Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s Research foundation.

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About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine

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