Chris Hadfield on Embracing Failure and Flying

By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Justin Tang

Get ready to fail before you fly.

That was the message astronaut Chris Hadfield had for 750 rapt students attending the fourth annual SOAR Student Leadership Conference.

The first Canadian to walk in space, Hadfield was at the Raven’s Nest on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, where he delivered a dynamic speech about his experiences in space and what it takes to be a leader.

“The real essence of leadership,” said Hadfield, “isn’t visualizing success, but failure – recognizing what’s probably going to fail and start getting ready for things to go wrong.”

He used the example of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets falling and exploding on their first flights. Spectacular failure is the best kind, he said, “because you can learn a lot more.”

Then he treated his audience to a recent video – one of Musk’s rockets landing safely in 90- kilometre winds.

Along with Musk, he cites Virgin’s Richard Branson and Amazon’s Jeff Beszos.

“All three of them are dissatisfied with the way things are,” he said, and because of their efforts these tech leaders are at the forefront of space exploration.

Chris Hadfield on Embracing Failure and Flying

Setting Your Own Trajectory

It’s the same whether you’re piloting a spaceship, organizing an event or anything else you want to accomplish in life, he said. The purpose of leadership is always to accomplish something, and Hadfield said the best example of this was the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969. That moment in time, when the first human stepped on the moon, he was a nine-year-old boy inspired enough to dedicate his life to becoming an astronaut.

“I think it’s really important to stick your rudder in the waters of your life,” he said.

“Try to direct your choices of your own life, don’t let life just randomly kick you around.”

Chris Hadfield on Embracing Failure and Flying

He reminded his audience that no one is born an astronaut. He used the examples of the country’s newest astronauts – Jenni Sidey and Joshua Kutryk – who were recently announced as Canada’s 13th and 14th astronauts.

Sidey is 29, a professor at Cambridge University, is one of the world’s leading experts in turbine design and plays on the national rugby team, while Kutryk is a 35-year-old triathlete with five university degrees.

“Just a couple of Canadian kids,” said Hadfield.

“Neither are them were born like that, each of them said: ‘How can I truly do the things that I passionately believe in?'”

“I loved the way he summed it up,” said Olivia Brown, executive director for the campus activity board at the Student Experience Office, and in her fourth year of a social work degree. “The reality is, leadership is very hard, and you have to push your life toward whatever your goals are.”

Chris Hadfield on Embracing Failure and Flying

Leadership Skills Propel
Chris Hadfield to Space Station Command

Leadership takes a lot of preparation, said Hadfield. He spacewalked in 2001 to work on the Canadarm2, suiting up to walk in space where it’s -140°C in the shade and 150°C in the sun.

On March 14, 2013, Hadfield became commander of the International Space Station (ISS), 21 years after he was first chosen by Canada’s Space Agency.

His presentation included many of his pictures of the planet from space, as well as video footage from ISS as it encircled the Earth. One sped-up, looped video of green, wriggling aurora borealis looked computer-generated.

Chris Hadfield on Embracing Failure and Flying

“But this isn’t an artist’s impression,” said the retired astronaut.

“This isn’t pretend. This is an experience that’s directly linked to the challenge that we were given to take the best of our technology to build this: a space station for the world, a laboratory orbiting the planet.”

He described the ISS as a door opening to the future, where countries that otherwise might not get along worked together for the good of the human race. He wondered out loud who among the university undergraduates were going to join that cause.

“I didn’t expect to be inspired but I was,” Aura Giles, an electrical engineering student, said after his keynote.

“I met him once at a book signing, and I got this really laid back vibe from him. This is a great man, he’s done a lot of great things, and he’s still just really chill. He’s down to Earth.”

Monday, January 29, 2018 in
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