Astronaut Chris Hadfield is afraid of some spiders. He's also, improbably, scared of heights. But when he went temporarily blind during his first space walk—the result of an oil and soap mixture, used to keep spacesuit visors clean, getting in his eyes—he somehow didn't panic. "We had practiced. We knew everything there was to know about the spaceship, and we practiced things going wrong," he said during a TED talk this week that honed in on his method of overcoming fear (the secret: just do or practice the thing you're scared of over and over again until it no longer scares you).
After the talk, Hadfield met with press to discuss all things space. And I had to ask: what does Hadfield think about all the private space companies, like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, that are popping up? Can they really democratize spaceflight?
"You could ask the exact same question a century ago about airplanes," he says. "We're at 1912 or maybe 1915 in spaceflight. The shuttle is a ridiculous vehicle, and yet it's the best in the world."
He points out that the two space companies have different missions: Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is actually trying to privatize spaceflight now, while Elon Musk is using government contracts (and contracts with private companies) to push forward space technology with SpaceX in the hope that eventually he can drop the cost of space flight by an order of magnitude. And if that happens, space travel will become much, much more accessible.
"What Richard Branson is doing is really brave, hard, and looking for a niche market. I don't know if it's a viable business model or not," he says. "None of the early airlines made it. A few original car companies exist. Someone's got to be brave."
As an astronaut, it's impossible not to watch movies like Gravity with a critical eye. But Hadfield, who believes he may have been the first astronaut to see the film, appreciated the film for what it was.
During our briefing, Hadfield was subdued on the topic. "I think it won all the right Academy Awards. It was visually spectacularly good," he says. But the storyline, he says, had nothing to do with reality. "It's like a doctor watching a doctor movie," he says.
To see what it's really like in space, check out one of Hadfield's many YouTube videos. Here's his most famous clip—a rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" performed aboard the International Space Station. In his TED talk, which is not yet available online, Hadfield performed a rendition of the song: