Niamh’s Space News – Meeting CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield

Happy Summer time everyone!

Hope that your summer is going well and that you all have the opportunity to take some time off for yourselves in the weeks ahead. For those of you undertaking state exams (Leaving or Junior Cert) or are parents of anyone taking these exams, I hope that they all went well for you- it will all soon be over and a whole summer beckons for you to relax and recuperate. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me about the Chris Hadfield event, so in this issue, I’d like to focus on sharing  my experiences of the day with you all. So here we go, and I hope that you enjoy it!

Here’s a link to this blog on Issuu

Chris Hadfield Event, June 11th at UCD Family Fest

In the last edition, in early June I told you that I would be hosting Chris Hadfield on stage Saturday June 11th at my old college University College Dublin (UCD). Well it happened and I can happily share that things couldn’t have gone better! All my preparations paid off and Chris was a terrific guest.

Here’s a breakdown of how it went.

10.30am I arrived at UCD and headed to their new University Club building to host the final episode of the livestream climate action programme ‘Taking Action TV’ as part of Crumlin Creative Climate Action project. The place was buzzing with organisers, catering and media teams, preparing for the day ahead. The atmosphere across campus of the UCD Festival was great, colourful flags and signage everywhere, families and kids everywhere, painted faces, faint echoes of live music travelled through the air along with delicious smells of burgers and barbeque, outdoor tents with benches and pastel cushions and rugs. Indoors and outdoors there were events happening everywhere. It was all familiar to me, I’ve been contributing space-themed talks to this festival every year and its always a happy day which feels something between a school sports day and a music festival. Just great. Today was extra special of course and thanks again to Rick O’Shea for inviting me to host this event with Chris, an event curated as part of his literary festival for the day. 

As I was heading to my room to do the livestream, I bumped in to an old college buddy and mid-conversation, I got a tap on the shoulder. It was Chris Hadfield himself, en route to his morning event but was keen to introduce himself. A nice gesture I thought with those great manners that our event was going to go really well.  The last episode of ‘Taking Action TV’ went really well and I’ve really enjoyed chatting with the Crumlin community and the production team behind our weekly shows. Once the show was over, I quickly changed in to my outfit for the Chris Hadfield event, (a pre-loved Amanda Wakeley dress that ALWAYS make me feel amazing). And then it was time for our tech check in the O’Reilly hall.

BACK TO DECEMBER 2013: Science Gallery

Allow me to digress for a bit and tell you about the first time I ‘met’ Chris Hadfield. It was December 2013 and he was in Ireland to promote his first book ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’. There was an event in Science Gallery where Newstalk interviewed him live on-air and afterwards there would be a short book-signing ceremony. I was sitting up the back during the interview enjoying every moment of the conversation when my fellow science communication buddy and Events manager at Science Gallery at that time, Shaun O’Boyle. lightly tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear. ’If you want to get your book signed, you need to follow me now’, he said. ‘Chris isn’t going to stick around for long so you need to join the line now’. I jumped up and followed him downstairs where a queue of about 20 people had formed, all was fellow space nerds no doubt, keen for their moment with Chris. I joined the line just as the radio interview ended and in seconds the doors of the lecture hall opened, people rushing out to join the queue I had only joined seconds before. Thanks to Shaun, I had avoided this mad dash. 

As we waited for Chris to join us, I got talking to the family behind me- they were from Laois and had travelled up especially, their young son was a huge fan. They asked me if I would take a picture of them on my phone when Chris signs their book. Of course I would, I told them. And in exchange they agreed to take a picture of me on their camera, they didn’t have a camera phone. It was 2013 remember. We exchanged emails, when suddenly Chris appeared and took his seat to sign copies of his book. ‘Let’s keep the line moving’, Chris instructed Shaun, ‘no time to pose for pictures.’ Eek!! No time for a picture? Well that put a spanner in the works. ‘Don’t worry’, said the Laois family, ‘just squeeze in beside him and we’ll take a picture of you as he signs your book’. I wasn’t so sure I could be that brazen but they were very persuasive and tole me not to overthink it. The line was moving very quickly and as my moment with him got closer, my nerves kicked in. ‘Next!’ Someone shouted and it time for Chris to sign my book. He didn’t even look up, I didn’t know what to do but I looked up and the Laois family were gesturing to move in beside him, which I did. And then he was on to the next person. And it was my turn to get a picture of their son with Chris. I got it! We gathered afterward and were thrilled that the plan was fully executed. Before they left I emailed them the photos I had taken on my phone, so that they could have them straight away. We parted, waving goodbye. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever hear from them again, that they would take the time to send me on the photo they took of me and Chris together. They were. under no obligation to really, its not like they would ever see me again. And besides there have been lots of times over the years when you promise to send someone details, or links or whatever, but after the moment passes, the urgency to make good on your promise kind of passes. And pretty soon, its Allen off your todo list. But fair play to that Laois family, about 2 days later, their email landed in my inbox and I had a picture of me with Chris Hadfield. An unofficial photobomb if I’m honest but I had it! 

BACK TO 2022: 12.30pm Technical Rehearsal at O’Reilly Hall

I arrived at O’Reilly Hall ready to go, make-up applied, dress on and carrying my heels (which I would put on at the very last second, since the pandemic heels are excruciating to wear for any longer than an hour for me!). And that was probably one of my wisest decisions ever.  The rehearsal went well, Chris is meticulous in his preparations, he had provided some images and videos to accompany some of the questions that we had worked on together. Sound and light levels were checked and we ran through our entrance and exit. 

Tech rehearsals done and as I was heading back to my room, Chris hollered ‘Hey Niamh, you wanna have a chat now?’ Did I WHAT?? ‘Sure, I can do that Chris’, I replied, trying to contain my excitement. I thanked the Gods that I had decided to get ready before the tech rehearsal. I had nothing else to do except hang out with Chris. We walked together back to the green room, people beaming at Chris as we walked through the building.  I was surprised that he wasn’t thronged by people once they saw him but his chaperone guided him very skilfully through the corridors, weaving him swiftly between the crowd and safely back to his room. She left us to get coffees and then I was alone with Chris, time for us to fine tune the interview and to get to know each other a little better. I always like to get to know the people I interview as much as I can in advance of a live event, feeling familiar with guests puts them and me at ease. And I especially wanted that for this interview, one of the biggest of my career so far. We had spoken on the phone the day before to go through the main structure of the interview and that helped things but this additional hour alone would really improve our connection on stage. 

So what would you talk about if you had an hour with Ireland’s best-loved astronauts? That was kind of my approach in preparing for this ‘In Conversation with Chris Hadfield’ event. I wanted to know how Chris manifested his big life goal, how he made his dream into a reality. I wanted to know about the sacrifices he made for that quest. I wanted to know who gave him the self-belief to dare to dream so spectacularly, and how he adjusted to life after seeing the Earth from a distance. Those questions became the structure of the event and Chris was extremely generous in his replies. He shared photos of his early life, his time as a air force cadet, his early aviation career, he told us what Canada was like growing up during the Apollo era and the impact the moon landings had on his decision to be an astronaut. We talked about his three missions to space, what launch feels like in your body, we talked about his six months living a weightless existence on board the International Space Station and how the body adjusts. We talked about his new book ‘The Apollo Murders’ and the sources of his creativity. I only tipped the iceberg in our interview, we could have talked for another 3 hours but Chris’ time is precious and so as I was closing the event, the room thanked him, he waved and jumped off the stage to briefly meet little Adam King before his chaperone whisked him away before he was overwhelmed by the audience all keen to have their moment with Chris, a picture similar to the one I had taken without his consent back in December 2013.

The event was over, I took off my mic, picked up my notes and went looking for my brother and friends who joined me at the event for moral support. I found my brother and we made a loose plan to catch up after I’d changed out of my heels (which by now were of course excruciating). But as I went to leave the auditorium, families began to approach me. They wanted to thank me for a great event, to talk about space, share their passion for it with me, tell me their favourite parts of the event. Soon I was surrounded by people who all wanted to talk to me. And it was really lovely. I guess I hadn’t thought about this side of the event. I had prepared so much for meeting Chris, making sure that he was comfortable, that my questions were interesting, what I was going to wear. I hadn’t thought that people would be in the least bit interested in chatting with me. It was a really special bonus to an already pretty perfect day and I was very touched to have the time to chat with fellow space nerds. In the midst of all these great chats, Sheila, one of the organisers of the event tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Chris is leaving and he’d like to say goodbye’, she whispered in my ear. I told the families to wait 5 mins and I would be back to finish our chats then raced (in my crippling heels) up to the green room. Chris was packing away his stuff, ‘Niamh, thanks so much. I think that went really well, do you?’, he said. I told him I agreed and I thanked him for all the time he gave me before the event, and that our hour together will always remain a very special memory for me. We shook hands, and I told him that I needed to get back to the hall to make sure that all the kids still there would continue to keep their own space dreams alive, and if chatting with me encouraged that, then that’s where I needed to be. 

Eventually the room was empty and just my friends from college were left, some whom I hadn’t seem in years. We chatted about our days at UCD studying engineering together, we took a group picture and went our separate ways. I returned to my room and got out of my favourite blue dress and kicked off my excruciating heels. I caught up with my brother for a coffee on the way home and then hit the motorway for the drive back to Dundalk. I had an hour alone on the drive, time finally to reflect on my incredible day. I thought back to 9 years earlier to the time I first ‘met’ Chris. 

During our rehearsal, the tech team needed to adjust some lights and I found myself with Chris sitting in silence as we waited for them to get their job done. I took the opportunity to tell him about the first time I ‘met’ him. At that book signing in December 2013. And that I had photobombed myself in to a picture with him. ‘And look where you are now, Niamh!’, he said. ‘Yeah’, I said. ‘Isn’t it amazing, when you decide to pursue the thing you’re most passionate about, that magical things can happen.’ ‘I don’t believe in magic’ Chris replied, ‘its because of hard work and commitment’. He was right I guess. I guess I have been working pretty hard over the last 9 years, I guess Rick O’Shea didn’t just give me this opportunity out of the goodness of his heart, I guess UCD trusted that I would do a good job because I’d been giving talks about my space adventures nearly every year since UCD Festival began. I guess it was time for me to accept that days like this day didn’t happen by magic. It happened because I’ve never stopped in my own personal quest to be one of the the best space communicators in the world and that one day, my day will come to see the Earth from a distance. And report on it, write about it, share it with all the families that I met today at UCD. 

Now I have two pictures with Chris- one from that day at the book signing, and a second real picture with him- on stage. interviewing Ireland’s favourite astronaut.  Thanks again to Rick and everyone at UCD for making a dream come through.


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