Star astronaut Chris Hadfield talks about his role at the 2019 Elevate festival

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The first Canadian to walk in space wants us to keep exploring the universe—and start-ups, too

Photograph by Janick Laurent

Chris Hadfield is living proof of, well, a lot of things. The first and most obvious is that, regardless of where you come from, with enough dedication, focus and hard work, no goal is entirely out of your reach—including space. But he’s also proof that space commanders (which wasn’t his actual title, though he did command the International Space
Station) can simultaneously get the world excited about space exploration and pull off a mean cover of Bowie. But perhaps most of all, Hadfield proves that passion is contagious.

In the six years since he became one of the world’s most famous astronauts, Hadfield has written best-sellers, judged reality competitions, spoken to thousands of people across the world, and founded the Creative Destruction Labs to drive research and innovation in the tech sector—each endeavour informed by and infused with his palpable passion for exploration and progress. It’s no wonder that he’d be a co-chair and keynote speaker at Elevate. Like Hadfield, Elevate is about advancing esoteric concepts and innovative ideas, and using them to benefit our daily lives.

Technology can be daunting, of course. So having someone down-to-earth yet intensely passionate leading the way certainly helps. Talking to Hadfield is like conversing with a combination of your favourite science teacher and your own dad. Warm, inspiring—and probably a little mind-blowing, too.

Tell me a bit about your involvement with Elevate.

I am fundamentally convinced by my own observations that the only way we can continue to succeed and improve our quality of life is through technology. It takes care of us all; it feeds so many people; it gives us so many things we take for granted. But in order to stay competitive and continue to challenge and enable our kids, we need to have good technology. We also need to provide future generations with opportunities to improve technology—to me, that’s what elevates all of us. So when when Razor Suleman [CEO and co-founder of Elevate] asked me to be a part of this festival, I was delighted to be one of the chairs.

Your goal is to inspire people to learn about tech and get involved with it. How have people been resistant to that?

It’s easy to just keep doing what you’re doing, right? Change is hard. The easiest way to see that is generationally. I look at my 85-year-old parents. We gave my mom an iPad two years ago, and she’s yet to turn it on on her own. And that’s normal enough. Everything that is invented until you turn 30 is cool and exciting, challenging and enabling. And everything that is invented after you turn 30 is stupid.

You have to recognize that this is the standard way people are, and also that the pace of invention is accelerating—especially improvements in com-munication and transportation. Consequently, you need to rethink your own assumptions and understandings of things.

My dad is a good counterpoint in that he was really against the whole idea of computers and the Internet and all that until he realized, “Wow, I can just push this button and everything is available to me. Oh, that’s really cool.” Now he’s a huge proponent of it. And, at 85, he has just taken advantage of the latest in solar conversion technology to equip his farm and cottage so that everything is 100 per cent powered by solar and small batteries. It’s improved his quality of life and decreased his impact on the environment.

I’m a big believer in the necessity of technology for quality of life. So number one, you have to make technology possible. Then you have to make people aware of technology and convince them to adopt it. Often, you need something like Elevate to facilitate this introduction. You have to let an audience of people know about up-and-coming technologies and how we can use them to address some of our current technological shortcomings and make life better all around the world. I’m a believer in trying to replace whole generations of bad technology to let people leapfrog right into some of the great technology emerging right now.

What are some of those bad technologies?

Well, if you look at global studies on world health and birth rates, it looks like the Earth is going to peak at somewhere below 10 billion humans. If that’s the case—if by the end of the century there are 10 billion people on Earth—the world can easily support them. But it can’t support 10 billion people using the same technology we might have used if there were only 10 million people. We would use up all our resources or cause too much damage to the environment.

Think of the industrial revolution, for example, which used petroleum-based fuels harnessed through steam and later through internal combustion engines. These technologies enabled an incredible revolution in the quality of human life and a huge population explosion. And that was a wonderful thing. But when you apply that technology to 10 billion people, it won’t work. You cannot give 10 billion people the quality of life that people in Toronto have using the energy production, distribution and transportation technologies we’re using right now. That doesn’t mean that what exists is bad or that there’s no solution to it. We just need to continue improving and adapting to new tech, just like they did 250 years ago.

We tend to become very myopic in our own problems of today. We think that nobody in the past had problems as serious as ours, which is just an egotistical slant. Humanity’s problems have always been serious and existential and people have always found solutions, through their own resourcefulness, their ability to invent, work and share ideas. That’s no different than now.

One of the challenges of our age seems to be a mistrust of facts and a rejection of science.

Well, that’s no different either. It’s been that way forever. But the Internet provides what appears to be a level playing field for facts and opinion—so it’s deceptive.

In the 1780s, the very first human being rose from the earth in a balloon out of Paris. It was a huge event—the latest technology! Benjamin Franklin was there to see it and so were a couple of future U.S. presidents. It was a great scientific wonder of the day, to be able to fly using balloons. And yet, when the first balloon test vehicle crashed 15 miles from downtown Paris, the local peasants attacked it with pitchforks because they thought it was an alien descending from space. Only 15 miles away from the city, the lack of shared understanding of the advances of science was radically demonstrated. That was 250 years ago, and nothing has truly changed.

That said, we now have a rare opportunity to actually change things, because the vast majority of the world has incredible technology in their pockets—we can access the Library of Alexandria, global positioning, global communication. The resources of human knowledge that each of us has in our mobile phone is unprecedented.

It’s easy to focus on the noisemaking naysayers. You can believe in something in a breath. To actually understand it takes a little bit more work. Until you give someone enough information, they’ll just latch onto their own incorrect belief.

What’s the balance, going forward, between publicly funded discovery and free enterprise? 

It’s a natural progression. Agile inventing and testing and a willingness to fail are very much the purview of private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and, to some degree, Jeff Bezos. They are good influences.

If you’re the Canadian government, you have over 35 million shareholders, the majority of whom you have to please. That’s a very risk-averse organization. If you’re a private company like Boeing, SpaceX or Blue Origin, you can choose how much risk you want to adopt depending on how many shareholders you have. But if you are just one entrepreneur who has enough personal wealth to be the only real shareholder, you can be extremely risk-accepting. You can be confident in yourself. The question is, however, if you’re engaging in a dangerous business, are you willing to risk lives? You have to be, if you want to explore new technologies in transportation.

That’s where we are in space flight. The governments have invested in aviation since the Second World War. The technology became so good enough that it started to become commercially viable. That happened with aviation 100 years ago. Today, 11 million people a day get on a commercial airliner, and they go to a completely unlivable place, up at 40,000 feet. It’s 60 degrees below zero, and there’s almost no air. And yet they’re perfectly comfortable—and we’re shocked when it proves to not be 100 per cent safe.

We have this strange mentality where we want our technology to be so good that we can take it completely for granted. It’s wonderful that, to a large degree, we can. What’s happening in space right now is that
governments have done all of the hard, unprofitable groundwork to build the bedrock of understanding on which everything else will be based. And now they’re turning to private enterprises who can start finding ways to make a profit.

You need people to be willing to change. You need to be excited by the fact that technology improves life on Earth and beyond. To me, such ideas are also both the draw and the purpose of Elevate.

Chris Hadfield appears on the Elevate Main Stage at Meridian Hall (1 Front St. E.) on Sept. 24.