In this episode of the Wait Wait… The International Space Station is a pretty great backdrop for a music video, and Commander Chris Hadfield didn’t waste the opportunity as he was orbiting the Earth (at 17,500 miles an hour) back in the spring of 2012. The Canadian astronaut of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” — and also tweeted and blogged from orbit, making him the de facto ambassador from Outer Space.
Since Hadfield sang about Major Tom in space, we’ve invited him to answer three questions about some lesser-known Toms.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we bring somebody who’s flown high back to Earth with a thump. It’s called Not My Job. There have been many astronauts over the decades, but only one of them recorded a hit music video on the International Space Station. That would Commander Chris Hadfield’s version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and we’re not even menioning his tweets and blog posts from orbit, which made him the de facto ambassador from outer space.
He’s back on this planet. We’re delighted to have him with us. Commander Hadfield, welcome to WAIT WAIT…DON’T TELL ME!
CHRIS HADFIELD: Thank you very much, glad to be with you.
SAGAL: So let’s get right to it. You’re a Canadian national hero, being born in Canada, Canadian Air Force pilot before you went up to the space station. And how does it feel to have your star as Canada’s most important hero taken away by Mayor Rob Ford?
HADFIELD: Yeah, that’s kind of an embarrassing thing for Canada right now. We all apologize.
SAGAL: Of course you do. We had no doubt. We took it as a given. But don’t you at the same time feel a little bit of pride in that you must know the stereotype of Canadians, and now we’ve got this guy. Don’t you think it adds a little to your cache?
HADFIELD: We were trying to compete with Charlie Sheen.
MO ROCCA: You already have the counter. That’s great, yeah. Is it true that in Canada the government pays for your crack?
HADFIELD: No, but it’s a tax write-off.
SAGAL: Now back to you, you grew up on a farm in Canada, yes?
HADFIELD: I did. I grew up on a corn farm.
SAGAL: And you wanted to be an astronaut from a very early age.
HADFIELD: Yeah, I decided to be an astronaut when I watched Neil and Buzz walk on the moon when I was nine years old.
SAGAL: And for most people, that would be a difficult dream. You were a Canadian farm kid. Canada didn’t even have a space program.
HADFIELD: Yeah, that was a bit of an obstacle.
SAGAL: Yeah. And did anybody sit you down and say Chris, this is Canada, we’re blowing all our money in health care for everybody, we don’t have rocketships?
SAGAL: One of the things that I find so impressive about your story is that there were all these impossible odds against you. I mean, for example you figured out the only way you’d ever get to be an astronaut was become a fighter pilot, so you had to become a fighter pilot, and the chances of being a fighter pilot were very small. So you just kept at it and succeeded, which I find intimidating and a little annoying.
HADFIELD: Yeah, I remember the day when I was a recruit in the air force, and they said how many of you people want to fly the new fighter. There were about 500 in the room. And almost everybody put up their hand, and eventually only two of us did. So you’re right, it was a real longshot, and then becoming an astronaut was even a bigger longshot.
But I figured, hey, that morning, it had been impossible to walk on the moon, and now people had done that. So I was willing to give it a try.
ROCCA: Can I ask: What did you do to the other 498 people?
HADFIELD: I snuck to the front of the line.
SAGAL: One of the things that you write about in your book, which is sort of life lessons from your career, is you talk about preparation and how carefully and methodically you prepared. And there’s a story you tell to illustrate it about an Elton John concert.
HADFIELD: Yes, I was flying airplanes and air shows in Canada, and the organizers of the air show noticed that Elton John was flying in that day to do a concert in Windsor, Ontario, and they somehow thought they would parlay my small fame into them all meeting Elton John. And I thought the odds were extremely small, but they were convinced that we were going to meet Elton John.
And so here’s how a guy who started out as a nine-year-old farm kid views things. I went OK, what’s the worst thing that could happen? The worst thing that could happen would be that I meet Elton John, and Elton John and I are talking, and he finds out that not only am I an astronaut, but maybe he loves astronauts, and he wants the astronaut to come up onstage with him.
What would be the only thing that might happen if he finds out that an astronaut who’s up on stage with him plays guitar, what song could they possibly play together, it would be “Rocket Man.”
SAGAL: Right, following you so far.
HADFIELD: So that afternoon I sat down and learned “Rocket Man.”
AMY DICKINSON: Wow.
SAGAL: So you didn’t know at that point that you would meet Elton John.
SAGAL: But you just gamed it out to where he was inviting you to play “Rocket Man.” So you wanted to be able to play “Rocket Man” on the guitar.
HADFIELD: And what happened was we did actually meet Elton John and spent a long time talking to him. He turned out to be a really nice guy. But fortunately for both of us, I never ended up onstage, never played “Rocket Man” with him. But my whole life, I’ve been getting ready to play “Rocket Man,” and sometimes it works out for the best.
SAGAL: You actually – I want to talk a little bit about the video, which is you, of course, playing and singing “Space Oddity,” the David Bowie song, which most people think of as “Major Tom,” up there on the space station.
HADFIELD: That was my son’s idea. He kind of goaded me into it. And I didn’t even want to play the song because it’s kind of a weird, psychedelic, ’60s song, and at the end of it the astronaut dies.
SAGAL: Yeah, I noticed that.
SAGAL: Did you change the lyrics so that you don’t die, or…?
HADFIELD: Well, I made a deal with my son that if he would rewrite the lyrics so that the astronaut doesn’t die, then I would record the song for him. And I did, and it sort of took off from there.
SAGAL: It sure did. I want to talk to you a little bit more about this preparation. Is there anything – did you ever have an early experience where you weren’t prepared, and you were like I’m never going to let that happen again?
HADFIELD: Yes, I did a few times. One time was actually at a party. I was retiring or leaving a flying squadron. I was going to go and become a test pilot. And for whatever reason, I hadn’t thought about the fact that I was going to have to make a little speech, and I was caught short, and I didn’t know the right words to say, and I resolved I would never be caught that way again.
And so I made up a rule on how it is that you give a speech when you’re caught flat-footed. The first thing you do is you thank somebody. It doesn’t matter who. You thank the person who handed you the microphone, you thank your mother, you thank your parents, you just start thanking people randomly.
HADFIELD: And then after you’ve thanked a few people, if you still haven’t thought of something to say, then talk about the weather.
HADFIELD: So I gave this advice to a 10-year-old boy, and here’s he used it. He stood up, and he went into his little speech, and he said OK, well, I’d like to thank the principal, and I’d like to thank my mom and dad, and how about this heat?
HADFIELD: And so a little 10-year-old boy brought the house down with how to give a speech. And since then it’s worked for me every time.
SAGAL: Really? Well, thank you so much, Chris Hadfield.
SAGAL: And boy, it is warm today, isn’t it?
ROCCA: I’ve got a question about – I have a question about preparation, and it’s about the lady astronaut with the diaper, that incident a few years ago. Is that – is that – what is – I mean, do you wear diapers or…?
HADFIELD: We don’t usually wear them when we’re driving interstate, no.
SAGAL: So when you, Chris Hadfield, are going to confront your boyfriend’s wife, how do you prepare?
ROY BLOUNT, JR.: You thank a lot of people, and then you…
SAGAL: Well, Chris Hadfield, we are delighted to talk to you. Today we have asked you hear to play a game we’re calling…
CARL KASELL: I am sitting in a tin can, far above the moon.
SAGAL: So you’re famous – well, for a lot of things but most recently for singing about Major Tom in orbit. But what do you know about minor Toms, the less famous Toms of the world? Get two out of three questions right about minor Toms, you will win our prize for one of our listeners, Major Carl’s voice on their voicemail. Carl, who is Commander Hadfield playing for?
KASELL: He is playing for Nick Gordon of Agawam, Massachusetts.
SAGAL: All right, you ready to do this?
HADFIELD: I am ready.
SAGAL: All right, here we go. Your first minor Tom is one Thomas Corea, Esquire, he’s in Dallas, Texas. he made the news when he was evicted from his law office and then did what: A, opened the first ever taco and legal advice truck on the streets of Dallas; B, moved back into the basement of his parent’s law firm; or C, drew crude graffiti featuring the male anatomy on every wall of his law firm’s building?
HADFIELD: I’m going to go with graffiti.
SAGAL: You’re right, he graffitied the entire building, the legal thing to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Your next minor Tom is on Tommy Mattinson of Northern England. He is one of the world most obscure world champions. What is he the champion of: A, he’s the current champion of human dressage, where people ride other people…
DICKINSON: Oh no.
ROCCA: Oh gosh no.
SAGAL: Prance about; B, he’s reigning gurning champion, that’s a competition for who can make the ugliest face; or C, he’s the world’s best alphabet burper, with a record of 174 letters in one burp.
JR.: Wow, you could really do all three at once.
HADFIELD: I just like the idea of number of letters you can burp. I’m going to go with burping.
SAGAL: You’re going to go with burping, as well you might, but it was actually gurning, making faces. Tommy Mattinson is a 15-time world champion gurner.
Your next minor Tom is known only as Tom the Diver, and he claims what special aquatic talent: A, he invented underwater makeup to, quote, make manatees less ugly; B, he hypnotizes sharks by massaging their noses; or C, he is the first person to successfully get a saddle on a seahorse?
ROCCA: What did he do to the seahorse?
SAGAL: He saddled it.
ROCCA: Aren’t they little?
SAGAL: I didn’t say he rode it. I said he saddled it.
HADFIELD: A very small saddle, so it’s so absurd I’m going to guess hypnotizing sharks.
SAGAL: And you’re right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: That’s what Tom the Diver claims he can do. Don’t try that at home or in the pool. Carl, how did Colonel Hadfield do?
KASELL: He had two correct answers, Peter, so he wins for Nick Gordon.
SAGAL: Well done, Colonel. One more mission successfully completed.
SAGAL: Colonel Chris Hadfield most recently served as commander of the International Space Station. His new book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” is out now. Colonel Hadfield, thank you so much for joining us. What a pleasure to talk to you.
HADFIELD: Thank you very much.
SAGAL: Take care.
SAGAL: In just a minute Carl can’t find the knishes. It’s the listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT, to join us on air.
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