Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was in Waterloo Tuesday to give a lecture at the University of Waterloo a few months before he takes on an adjunct professor role.

'We had a fruitcake on the space station and it was like, Wilson in [the movie] Cast Away...' - Chris Hadfield

The former commander of the International Space Station says he looks forward to working with students in the aviation program in the fall.

The visit marked a homecoming for Hadfield who completed post-graduate research at the University of Waterloo in the 1980s and started his family in Waterloo Region. 

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of a CBC News interview with Hadfield at the University of Waterloo.

1. What made you decide to come back to the university?

I have been the lucky recipient of so many things that people have taught me over the years. You know you don’t become an astronaut by birth. You become an astronaut by training, and training takes teaching and professors and knowledge and smart people who have figured it out and are trying to put that knowledge into your own head.

And, I have always felt...every time I give a convocation address, I always exhort the students to realize that they have been given a privilege. This isn’t a degree, this isn’t a diploma, this is a responsibility and an obligation to go back and at least bring one other Canadian up to the same level of capability that you’ve been brought to.

And in my case I’ve just been so lucky that’s it’s always been an intent of mine to teach. To some level I’ve always taught – it’s been part of my role as an astronaut to share my experience in schools across the country.  But it just makes sense at this stage to try and teach at a university.

Really the crux is that they invited me and I was really delighted, with my roots in this area, to be able to accept.

2. As you mentioned, you’ve been teaching us ever since you went to space. You’ve been teaching the world. How is your role going to change when you teach university students as an adjunct professor?

I’ll have to grade papers, I guess. That’ll be different. I think the big difference is the formality of it...making sure that it fits in someone else’s curriculum, making sure I’m teaching to a certain text book.

But I’m really looking forward to it ... to interweave the actual technical content that is important ... with the practicality and reality with all the years of experience that I have, so that students come away from it, not just understanding the pure theory, which is necessary, but also seeing how it fits in.

And so I need to fit myself into the faculty here and make sure that I’m meeting all the objectives and doing my responsibilities, but at the same time I bring something to it that’s maybe slightly different than some of the other professors.

3. Chances are some of your students will also be aspiring astronauts like yourself. What advice would you give to them?

Really, three pieces of main advice. And one of them, they’re doing in spades, and that is getting an advanced technical education. We’re not going to allow people to operate spaceships who don’t have an advanced technical education. You have to have proven your ability to learn complex things at a high level.

The second is just physical. To fly a spaceship, we can’t fly unhealthy people because there aren’t good medical facilities on spaceships. So you have to stay healthy if you ever want to do anything far away from home. That includes if you want to do research in Antarctica or in the high Arctic or undersea or on a space station, you have to be at least healthy enough to stay away from medical facilities.

The third is: we can’t just hire healthy students to fly spaceships; we need people with deep practical experience and ability to make good decisions. Decision making is a perishable skill. It’s easy to go through life and just let it sort of decide for you. Both as a student, [and] then afterwards, to gain the practical experience that demonstrates the ability to make good decisions when the consequences matter.

4. Since you’ve been back on Earth you’ve pretty much just been talking about what’s going on in space. When you were in space, what kind of conversations were you having?

Well, on board the space station, we talk about everything. The views out the window...we share the culture of all of the international people on the space station, so everyone will talk about birthdays and what this particular Russian holiday is and what this American holiday [is].

You know, just sharing everybody’s experience, talking about where the food came from. We had a fruitcake on the space station and it was like, Wilson in [the movie] Cast Away. This fruitcake had its own personality and we all told stories based on fruit cakes.

It’s just a place where humans live, just on the edge of our existence...the edge of our capability. And the shared humanity of it...the reflections and how it all ties back to our culture and home, that’s really the key of it, and it was a constant delight to compare notes that way.