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Astronaut Chris Hadfield on blockchain’s next frontier: nodes in orbit, and settling the moon

To celebrate the end of 2020, here is a Forkast.News editors’ pick from our archives, content that still rings fresh, true and — in a world now measured in nanoseconds — timeless.

Space exploration and blockchain are two emerging industries that could work hand in hand, according to retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Blockchain could be used to increase the security and transparency of supplies that are essential to space programs, and the technology could also boost the privatization of the space industry, Hadfield told Forkast.News.

“If you look at the Chinese space program, or the American or the Russian, or Indian, or whoever’s, it’s a really complex problem to solve, with thousands of moving pieces, where if you make a mistake, you kill people or you have billions and billions of dollars worth of damage,” Hadfield said. “So it’s a natural application for blockchain-type technology… to make sure of the pedigree of all of the data that’s running through. And that’s just for the assembly and execution of the vehicles and the launch rockets and the operation and what’s going on.”

See related article: Covid-19 intensifies AI rivalry between China and US—at what cost to civil liberties?

Hadfield was a civilian Canadian Space Agency astronaut who retired as a Colonel in 2003 after 21 years of service. He also served as chief of the International Space Station’s operations from 2006-2008.

Watch Hadfield explain to Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau how blockchain can help the budding private space industry settle the moon, how Covid has affected his perspective, and more.

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Highlights

  • On using blockchain for space travel: “[Space programs are] a really complex problem to solve, with thousands of moving pieces, where if you make a mistake, you kill people or you have billions and billions of dollars worth of damage. So it’s a natural application for blockchain-type technology in order to be able to make sure of the pedigree of all of the data that’s running through.”
  • Enhancing existing systems with blockchain: “To me, [blockchain] is one of many very natural outgrowths of the decreased cost of access and the increased reliability and understanding of putting things and operating in orbit around the Earth.”
  • The value of settling the moon: “We are going to find things on the moon that are of immense value or marketable value to businesses and people back here on Earth. That is where we need to be forward-thinking: how are we going to be able to set up structurally to support that?”
  • Changing perspectives due to Covid: “You can’t know enough about [Covid] — it’s constantly changing and evolving… So digging into that, once you have gotten as deep an understanding as you can, then you need to set a set of objectives. What does success look like?”

Full Transcript

Angie Lau: Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into the emerging technologies that shape our world at the intersection of business, economy and politics. Today, I’m going to add one more word to that list: space. It’s space today. I’m Angie Lau, Editor in Chief of Forkast.News.

It is my pleasure to introduce a man who really needs no introduction. He is the first Canadian to walk in space, he has flown two space shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station. Colonel Chris Hadfield joins us right now to talk about space, the pandemic, but also leadership, perspective, and blockchain and cryptocurrency technology in our emerging space industry. Chris, it is great to have you on the show.

Chris Hadfield: Angie, thanks for the invitation. There’s so many things you just listed that are interesting to talk about, so I’ve been very much looking forward to chatting with you.

Lau: Well, let’s talk about the first thing that I am sure everybody is curious about. There’s a saying in the crypto world, “to the moon.” It’s very aspirational — “moonshot,” “to the moon.” You’re one of the handful of people on this earth who has actually made that journey, and you’ve seen the world from a completely different perspective. What can you share with an audience who wishes right now that the Earth was a little healthier, felt a little bit better? From that perspective, what can you share?

Hadfield: I think maybe three different things, Angie. One is, it is an immensely magnificent human experience, what you just alluded to. I’ve flown in space three times and spent half a year there, been around the world 2,600 times, and gotten to see the planet in its unfiltered, exquisite beauty right there in front of me — every place in the whole world. So that personal side of it is magnificent.

The second is the opportunity and understanding that it’s giving us of our planet and what we’re all facing right now with Covid. It is just sort of an in-your-face reminder of the fact that we’re all in this together and that things happen on this little ball. You know, you can go around the world on a spaceship in 90 minutes, so it’s not very big. Think how far you can go on a bike or your feet in 90 minutes — you can go around the whole planet in that amount of time. And so the necessity and maybe the help of focus that an event like the pandemic, but also the perspective that spaceflight gives us, I think is really important.

The third is just as a driver of technology. By inspiring and challenging ourselves to do something that is by definition impossible. When I was born, no one had ever flown in space, and now we’ve had people permanently living on the space station for just under 20 years. It’s commonplace now, to the point that commercial companies are taking people up to orbit. So that burgeoning opportunity of spaceflight, specifically the moon — I run a space foundation that’s looking at policy for settling the moon — that is the next obvious business destination, for an enormous place of untapped resources that we’ve only just started to scratch the surface of, setting up an economic system that includes the Earth and the moon.

We’ve discovered a continent bigger than Africa, and our technology has gotten good enough that now we can get there at what becomes maybe a practical cost. So that mixture of individual amazement, of self-awareness, and of business and technical opportunity, to me, it’s been my life’s work, but I find it fascinating and now, more than ever, just tremendously full of opportunity.

Lau: You’ve been an outlier your entire career. One of the handful of people who doesn’t experience life like the rest of us. You’ve literally left Earth from that perspective, and now into the business opportunities. When you think of the outlier technologies like blockchain and crypto, how are you now thinking about adapting outlier technologies that are becoming increasingly more mainstream as you think about those opportunities in space?

Hadfield: Yeah, it’s something I work in intensively. I run a technology incubator and I run the entire space stream looking at all new technologies that enable us to do things using either the data that comes from space or the actual high ground of space itself. If you look at essentially a very detailed tracking and tokenization type of capability to keep track of what’s happening, it’s been a little bit evident to us, I think, in the global lockdown of the pandemic, just what a digital world we live in. I think there’s going to be a bit of a step shift in human norms as a result of the last several months, and the months that are coming up, into an acceptance of levels of digital technology that there was a lot of initial resistance to.

When you start applying that to also the newer technology of spaceflight, it opens up in a couple of ways. One is, we can use satellite communication, of course, to enable blockchain. You can do it a lot of different ways, like use existing satellites, but we’ve had blockchain satellites, early demonstrators, in space already for the last two or three years. People are starting to recognize you can set up a nodal structure using a task-specific design blockchain asset in orbit. So that’s one side of it, just using the geometry and the isolation and therefore the appeal of that for the security and the globalization of blockchain.

The other is, if you look at the Chinese space program, or the American or the Russian, or Indian, or whoever’s, it’s a really complex problem to solve, with thousands of moving pieces, where if you make a mistake, you kill people or you have billions and billions of dollars worth of damage. So it’s a natural application for blockchain-type technology in order to be able to make sure of the pedigree of all of the data that’s running through. And that’s just for the assembly and execution of the vehicles and the launch rockets and the operation and what’s going on.

As we start to settle on the moon over the next couple of decades, and as we start to mine what’s available on the moon, and the companies that are set up to mine asteroids, as the cost of access drops, it becomes even more prevalent. How are we going to manage that? How are we going to understand the pedigree of everything that we’re doing along the way? So there’s a huge opportunity there.

Whenever you challenge yourself to do something that was really, really hard and it pushes the edge of your technology, that’s where the invention comes along that enables an ease and a quality of life that’s been denied to us in the past. So I’m really excited to see how all that is going to mesh together over the next few years and really over the next decade or two.

Lau: To your point, it really is also an important part of human accountability. You know, right now we’re in the best of times and at the same time, the worst of times. We have a digital system where we can exist virtually, and yet the internet is chock full of issues. The digital divide, censorship in some cases — in a lot of cases — and access.

So we have emerging technologies like IPFS (InterPlanetary File System), for example, where blockchain can really bolster that up in a decentralized way, getting rid of the centralized bottleneck, sentinel, whatever you want to call it. But one of the important things is still that it’s mired on Earth. The nodes that are on Earth potentially could go away in an event, in a power outage, or whatever the case is. I mean, obviously, when it’s global, that’s almost impossible, but there is an important role that space plays with satellite nodes. Your thoughts on that?

Hadfield: Yeah, I think it’s a natural outgrowth. But the biggest public perception in spaceflight is that it is immensely complex and dangerous and therefore vastly expensive, and therefore, it’s the purview of governments. That’s been the tradition of space exploration and space utilization.

But the work that a few companies have been doing over the last decade, SpaceX, most notably, but a few others as well, has radically dropped the cost of access to space. And that, just like when we invented the wheel or a ship that could sail out of the sight of land or a steamship or a train or a truck or an airplane, when your transportation mode significantly becomes more reliable and cheaper, it opens up opportunities that you just wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

If a privatized company can reliably and inexpensively put things into Earth’s orbit in large numbers as is being done by SpaceX right now, for global internet access for everyone, which hopefully will help break down some of those other issues you were talking about, then you can look at it as, yeah, this isn’t just putting a node somewhere on the ground where you’re always subject to geopolitical issues and power outages and lightning strikes and all the normal things that happen on Earth.

But redundancy is really key, and having something that is, by its very nature, globally accessible and that gives us an international apolitical position, also, to me, makes a lot of sense. I’m not a blockchain expert by any means. I know a lot about spaceflight. But to me, it is one of many very natural outgrowths of the decreased cost of access and the increased reliability and understanding of putting things and operating in orbit around the Earth.

Lau: Well, this is an audience, the crypto audience, and increasingly, all of the adjacent professionals and senior executives in C-suites who are also joining this community would be interested in actually going to the moon, very aspirationally. It’s interesting that you’re looking at those business opportunities. Would you ever tokenize? How would you give the average person, the average human being, access to some of those business opportunities, that in other cases we’re also seeing tokenization projects that are happening in space right now?

Hadfield: I think it makes complete sense but I don’t know enough about it to be able to give specific advice to those experts. They should be teaching me on the expert side. When I look at new technology, I look at the problem we’re trying to solve, I look at the people who are involved, and what the edge-of-the-envelope technologies are that might try and break down a wall that we couldn’t get past before. We’re running into it in space flight all the time, with the miniaturization of decision making, with three-dimensional positioning, with the understanding of hypersonic aerodynamics, but also with the decreased cost of launch.

When you put all those things together, it’s as if we discovered an entirely new place that we can go. Then it comes down to who is going to have the leadership and the level of risk acceptance to be one of the vanguards that’s going to step into it. And there are some people who’ve just started in it now, over the last couple of years. We haven’t gotten anything up and permanently practically working at a nodal level yet. But I think it’s just going to be a natural outgrowth and it’s going to get there.

In the space foundation that I chair, and also in the tech stream that I run, we are constantly reminding ourselves that we need to be ready for the discovery of the first valuable thing on the moon. I’m from Canada, and the French were hugely involved in the European settlement of Canada in the 1600s — Voltaire famously described Canada as a few acres of ice and snow. That’s how we view the moon. We view it as, well, we don’t know much about it, so how could it have any value to us? Besides, it’s a long ways away and we’ve got our own problems right here, and we’re dealing with them day to day.

But the moon has more surface area than the continent of Africa, and we have only just sent a few people for a few days to walk around on the surface. We are going to find things on the moon that are of immense value or marketable value to businesses and people back here on Earth. That is where we need to be forward-thinking: how are we going to be able to set up structurally to support that? Whose loss are we going to enact? What technology is going to enable us to have people invest in? People internationally? Is it going to be country-based or is it going to be technology-based?

To me, it’s a terrific market for forward-thinking computer technology. It’s a great opportunity for blockchain, and nobody knows for sure where we’re heading, but I think no one also, conversely, can predict the exact opportunities that are going to come from it.

Lau: Chris, you live uncertainty. You’ve experienced it from a pure physical level, where every second was uncertain of the outcome. How has that trained your thinking, your leadership, and the way that you think about applying emerging technology?

Hadfield: Yes, I used to be a fighter pilot, then I was a test pilot — one of the most dangerous professions that exists — and then I was an astronaut for 21 years, and when we die [on the job], we die violently and very publicly. But at the same time, we are doing something as astronauts that is brand new in the human experience, and it is by definition pushing back the edges of human capability and human understanding. It’s taking us beyond the confines of the cradle of the Earth. So you need to weigh those in your mind: what is worth taking a risk for?

And when I look at businesses right now, I see it sort of as the same thing. I am not a person who takes risks just for the thrill of risk-taking. To me, it’s a measured thing. If I’m going to get in a rocket ship, if I’m going to invest in a business, if I’m going to advise and support a business, then I really want to understand what success is going to look like. Why am I taking this risk? Why am I strapping this rocket ship to my belly and trying to accomplish something?

To me, exploring the rest of the universe is worth taking a risk for. That is the fundamental first playing card that needs to be played. What does success look like? And therefore, is the risk worth taking for that? And then your job is no longer about fear. Your job is now about understanding that the nuts and bolts of that risk, the actual construct and software of your rocket or the potential hazards and strengths of the business and the due diligence of an astronaut on a space flight is staggering.

But I try and carry the same philosophy and everything else that I do — understand what the risk is — is it a risk I want to take that has a good enough benefit? And then my whole job as an individual, as a technology person, and as a manager and leader of the organization, is how can we understand the risk and manage it in such a way that we optimize our chances for success? It takes the fear out of it and turns it instead into risk management — a risk understanding and a risk minimization activity. And I apply it to everything that I do. Trivial things in my life, and the biggest things that I do in life, including flying a rocket ship.

Lau: And including, right now for all of us around the world, self-isolation. This is something you’ve endured professionally and now personally as well. How do you do it? How do we do it with grace, with inspiration, with ease?

Hadfield: It’s sort of like everybody in the world has just gone on a space mission to some degree, because you have a purpose, and that is, “I need to live my own life and I need to try and survive the threats of this particular medical threat.” But everybody is surrounded by danger. It’s a lot like you’ve launched on your spaceship and you’re surrounded by the inevitable danger of meteorites and the vacuum of space and the radiation from the sun and all the other stars.

So how do you find a way to deal with a very new set of circumstances, because everyone had a pattern to their life, and still accomplish things that give you a sense of value and self-worth while still functioning in a much higher risk-prone kind of environment? And to me, the most important thing harkens back to what I was saying earlier, and that is to understand the risk. What is the actual threat? How is this particular threat liable to affect me and the things that are valuable to me — my family, my friends, my business, my income, my well-being? Really, truly dig into it.

You can’t know enough about [Covid] — it’s constantly changing and evolving, our understanding is changing, the actual medical manifestations of Covid are not even perfectly understood by anybody yet. So digging into that, once you have gotten as deep an understanding as you can, then you need to set a set of objectives. What does success look like? What does success look like for the next hour? For today? For this week? For the next three months? And for the duration of how long this is going to affect society? How am I going to succeed at this? And then that will then define what actions we need to take.

This is how you live every day on a spaceship. What are we trying to accomplish? What are the risks? How am I going to optimize my performance? But the last part is psychological. We have had to change our normal. That’s hard – people liked the life they had, that’s why they were living their lives that way, and when it suddenly changed, you feel somehow betrayed, by fate or by some other external force. You have to find a way to not be in love with your old life. You need to recognize that, OK, due to forces beyond my control, this is a new normal, so get over it, you know.

Your previous life is interesting, but this is what’s actually happening now. And so redefine your objectives, but also redefine your rewards and your successes and your joys. Allow yourself the room to shift your psychology. Recognize it’s not going to be easy for anybody around you. An important thing I remind me of regularly is everybody is having to deal with this. And if you wake up in the morning and the first person you run into is really behaving like a jerk, and then the next person you’re run into is behaving the same… if you run into jerks all day, then you’re the jerk, and maybe were being affected by this more than you thought you would be. You need to give yourself some time and recognize it’s affecting you as well.

So reset objectives, accept the fact that this is a new normal, become expert, and grant yourself and everybody else some time to deal with the psychological impacts of this and then fight your way through it. There is still grace and joy and sunsets and sunrises and magnificence in the world. We maybe just have to shift our perspective as if we’re on a new spaceship to appreciate that.

Lau: We all make a choice on Earth, and in space. We choose to react or we choose to create. This is an opportunity for us to really reflect on the roles that we may have played in the past and the roles that we must play today. I truly believe, as you do, that we are creators and that we create a future, and that the future doesn’t land on us; the future is for us to define. And so, as a mother of a 3-year-old, what is the future going to hold? For those of us who are creating it right now, from your perspective?

Hadfield: One of the great joys in being an astronaut is you become the personification of an entire space agency. And so I’ve spoken to 3-year-olds. I’ve spoken in probably a thousand schools. My online presence, I speak to millions of people in trying to help answer that exact question. And when I write a picture to someone, I often write, “you create your own future.”

I think an important thing to remember is, you have the opportunity every single day to do something different. You have to take care of the necessities in your life; everyone has those, the obligatory things. If we were all figure skaters, those would be the compulsories, you’ve got to be able to do those. But at the same time, there is freedom everyday to do something original and to think about it. We tend to have a strange dichotomy, and that is that nobody really, truly understands what each of us is doing. It’s very personal, your path in life, and yet we often seek and require external validation to feel that we’ve succeeded.

That’s a very difficult balance, because if you never feel successful until someone tells you you’ve succeeded, then you’re helpless in setting a future that gives you satisfaction. So I think it’s vital teaching your 3-year-old, but also maybe reminding yourself at any age, that you can drop your own personal bar to victory as low as you want. You can feel victorious 10 times a day. Starting university, you can wait until four years from now, at graduation day, to feel you’d accomplished anything, or you could find that you’d succeeded every day.

I think the only way it’s going to happen is we have to continue to push technology if we want to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible around the world, and make it sustainable like we have been doing in an incrementally better way. The only way to do that is through the continued human inventiveness of technology. But it also requires a global care, a global perspective. And hopefully we’ll get some of that coming out of the recognition of the fact that something as simple as a small coronavirus can affect us all.

But the real onus is always going to come back to the individual. How are you educating yourself? How are you recognizing that the pace of invention is accelerating and you need to have a lifetime of study to be ready for it? How are you preparing your 3-year-old for that, but how are you also acknowledging it within yourself? And then how are you feeding your own soul, the grace within yourself? How are you finding joy?

I’m working with coronavirus detection companies, I’m working with technology incubation, I’m working with risk-prediction companies, but I’m also writing a fourth book. My wife is very heavily involved in artistic creation right now, painting and drawing and ceramics. I think you need to try and develop that within yourself on a daily basis. You’ve got a new set of rules here, under Covid, for a lot of people.

You’ve got to deal with the things you have to deal with, but with change comes obviously a different opportunity. Use it as an excuse to give yourself a little time to be more creative than normal, to think about different things. Use these new circumstances to look yourself in the mirror and think, “maybe I could do something a little different with my life and maybe I can find a little more satisfaction and joy in the things that I’m obliging myself to do every day.” We’re a lucky and interesting species and these are interesting times.

Lau: They’re interesting times; they are the best of times, they are the worst of times, it really depends on your perspective. And for that, Chris Hadfield, I am very grateful for you sharing your perspective here on Earth from space, from this global and spatial perspective, with us here on Forkast.News.

I’m super excited to see you at the Asia Blockchain Summit 2020 that’s coming up, you’re going to be a keynote speaker there. There’s no doubt that the audience, which is already well-versed in the emerging technology space, recognizes that technology and innovation create also equally those opportunities. Technology is a great metaphor for change. Covid is an experience that we are all having right now, and I think to your point, Chris, it’s a global experience that opens our eyes to a greater perspective. I hope that we inspire a lot of creators out there as we follow your footsteps.

Hadfield: Thank you very much, Angie, I’m really looking forward to the Asia Blockchain Summit. Far-thinking, aggressive, smart, technological people, looking to take a new technology and solve problems in a new way. To me, that is fundamentally exciting. To do it in a way that both creates wealth but also can provide a service to humanity like a way we’ve never seen before. I’m really looking forward to hopefully passing on some ideas in the technology field that other folks will find useful. So I’ll be talking to everybody here pretty shortly; I think it’s on the 16th.

Lau: Absolutely, we look forward to it. Thank you, Chris Hadfield, for joining us on Word on the Block, and thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode. I’m Editor-in-Chief of Forkast.News, Angie Lau. Until the next time.

Forkast.News will participate in the Asia Blockchain Summit 2020.