He Stayed Grounded by Writing a Thriller Set in Outer Space

Chris Hadfield went viral as an astronaut singing David Bowie in orbit. Now he has written a Cold War thriller packed with cosmic action.

Chris Hadfield in 2012. “A spaceship is like a pandemic to its wildest extremes,” he said. “It’s truly life and death, you can’t ever go outside, you don’t know how long this is going to last, bad things can happen any moment, and you don’t have any other company.”Credit…Mark Sowa/NASA

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By Sarah Lyall

In his long and varied career, the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has flown fighter jets, walked in space and orbited the earth for months while commanding the International Space Station. But until earlier this year, he never had to face the stomach-churning professional challenge of turning in a novel and learning that your editors think it is 35,000 words too long.

“They sent me back the first 30 pages, and I thought, ‘You have removed a whole bunch of words and ideas that, I’m pretty sure, are germane to what’s happening,’” Hadfield said in a video interview at the end of August. He sounded cheerful about it, considering. Eventually, he began to trust the process, he said, to internalize the notion that “writers and editors have different skill sets and you need them both,” and even to understand that less can sometimes be more.

What emerged was “The Apollo Murders,” slimmed down by a third and now 480 pages long. The novel, which Mulholland Books released this week, is set in the American space program in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a time of swaggering ambition and Cold War anxiety. Featuring undercover spies, scheming Russians and psychopathic murderers, sometimes all at once, it teems with authoritative details about what it might be like, for instance, to throw up in space or to grapple with a deadly Soviet astronaut who assaults you during a spacewalk.

Early buzz is good. Publishers Weekly described it as a “spectacular alternate-history thriller,” an “intelligent and surprising nail-biter.”

Calling Hadfield, who is 62, Canada’s most famous astronaut might seem like an oxymoron, or even a punchline, but he is probably the most famous living astronaut of any nationality in the modern era. (Leaving aside billionaire wannabe astronauts.) This is partly because his haunting 2013 performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while aboard the Space Station — literally floating far above the world — has been viewed more than 50 million times. That has a way of raising a person’s profile.

It is partly due, too, to Hadfield’s gregarious nature, extensive social media presence (he has 2.3 million followers on Twitter and 373,000 on Instagram), TED talks, public speaking and teaching jobs, consulting work and best-selling 2013 book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” During the darkest days of lockdown, Hadfield emerged as a go-to comforter of the afflicted, dispensing advice on how to deal with uncertainty, loneliness and isolation.

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