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Chris Hadfield's latest book: 'The Apollo Murders'

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

ISS Commander Chris Hadfield was orbiting the Earth at thousands of miles an hour as he sang David Bowie's "Space Oddity" in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HADFIELD: (Singing) This is ground control to Major Tom. You've really made the grade.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Unlike Major Tom, he made it back to Earth and began writing bestselling books about the final frontier. His new novel is called "The Apollo Murders." It follows a fictional Apollo Mission 18 during the space race and the Cold War in the early 1970s. And he joins us now.

Hello, Chris Hadfield.

HADFIELD: Hello, Lulu. How are you today?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am very well. So talk me through the plot a little bit - about what the ostensible mission of the space flight is but what the secret mission is because there's two things going on here.

HADFIELD: Oh, yeah, there are a lot of things going on. But the Apollo missions, of course, went to the Moon. And there were supposed to be Apollo 18 and Apollo 19, but Nixon canceled them for financial reasons. So the plot is he went to the Air Force, the U.S. Air Force, to get enough money and used the real military astronauts to be the crew of Apollo 18. And part of the reason that the military wanted to do it was at the time, the Soviets had a secret spy space station for real called Almaz that for real had a machine gun mounted on the outside of it. And part of the mission was to go up and get a better understanding of that secret space station Almaz and maybe do something dubious there and then to continue on to the Moon because in reality, the Almaz space station mysteriously malfunctioned in the spring of '73 and deorbited. And so that works into my plot. And then going on to the Moon, where there was a Soviet rover called Lunokhod driving around, which also in real life mysteriously malfunctioned in the spring of '73 - and that works into my plot of the American astronauts and cosmonauts in the Soviet space program, American space program, and then coming back down to the big, exciting final climax at splashdown just north of Hawaii.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned the machine gun, and that is - I don't want to give too much away, but it's a very important plot point up in space where you basically imagine what it would be like to have a gunfight between two different space capsules.

HADFIELD: Yeah, I was a fighter pilot during the Cold War, and I used to intercept Soviet bombers that were in North American airspace with a fully armed F-18. And sticking out the back of those Soviet bombers was a great big tail gun. And the amazing fact that they took one of those bomber's tail guns and mounted it on their secret space station - most people don't know about that, so it was fun to get all the details and get them right and make that an intrinsic part of the plot of "The Apollo Murders."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you talk about the sort of ancillary purpose of this book - not just being a cracking good yarn but also taking you into what it is like to be an astronaut and what people talk about. And one of the ways this really works is because the action is in space, and the protagonists are very far away from help at home. But the book pivots sort of back and forth between Houston and the teams in space or Russia and the teams in space. What did you want to get at about that dynamic?

HADFIELD: Well, it's the reality of it. You're in space alone, and you're facing the actual danger by yourself. But we have the world's ultimate help desk there with you all the time, you know? And you're talking to an astronaut who's on Earth, who's sitting in mission control. They have that huge team. They're in mission control to talk to you. And I was lucky enough to work in mission control for 25 shuttle missions in a row. I was NASA's chief capsule communicator, so I got to work in the same room that is set in this book for where they would have been talking to the crew and working with Gene Kranz, you know, who - Apollo 13, failure is not an option - you know, that Gene Kranz. So that crossover between how it actually works give people insight into that and then make that a really intrinsic part of the story so they can see just how the stones get turned over and how things unfold as it goes along. And I think, you know, it would have been the ultimate locked-room story with just three people, especially if the title's "The Apollo Murders" because that means at least two of them die, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

HADFIELD: That's going to be tough with a crew of three. So, you know, I needed a little more complexity of plot than that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does writing about space and what you gave your entire career to sort of bring you closer to it again? What compels you, I guess, to sort of bring this fictionalized world that you knew so intimately to life and to readers?

HADFIELD: Yeah, you're using a past tense that isn't real for me. Like, I am an astronaut. I served for 21 years. It's always in my thoughts. It's kind of foundational to who I am. And like, if I asked you to write about being a human being, you'll go, well, shoot, that's who I am. Of course, you know, it's not past tense. I wasn't a human being before. This is what is always around me and what - every time I look up at the sky or just, you know, daydream, this is what I'm thinking about. And there's so much stuff going on in space right now and on the surface of the Moon, you know, the stuff we're discovering and the technology that's coming, so I don't know that it's ever been more topical.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you mention all the exciting things going on in space now, and I am curious where you think things are. Are you - I mean, are you excited by the commercial push into space?

HADFIELD: Spaceflight has always been commercial. You know, the space shuttle was built by Rockwell for profit, and even the lunar lander that's in "The Apollo Murders" that's on the cover, it was built by Grumman, a commercial company for profit. The real question is, how cheap can the products be? And you used to have to be a trillionaire to fly in space. An entire country was the only entity on Earth that could afford to fly in space. And then the price came down in the '80s or '90s, where a very wealthy person could buy a ride with the Soviets, and several people did that. And now the price has come down another 10 or 100 times, where, gosh, you know, a 90-year-old old actor, Bill Shatner, can, you know, fly with Blue Origin or, you know, where it's now safe enough and simple enough that you don't have to be particularly qualified at all to be able to have a very minimal but still a spaceflight experience.

It's still early, and it's still imperfect. And we've got to figure out the regulations and how to work it into society, sort of like airplanes 110 years ago. But it's a really interesting trajectory, and it's a natural follow on to the type of work that I've been doing my whole life. And there's a whole universe out there still that's going to require professional astronauts. I'm not too worried about, you know, that no one's going to get...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No jobs for people like you.

HADFIELD: Well, that people are going to get confused that someone going for a ride is actually someone who's flying the ship.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At one point before spaceflight in the book, Alan Shepard leads the, quote, "astronaut's prayer." And we can't say it on the radio, but it is something like, dear, Lord, please don't let me mess up.

HADFIELD: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that a real thing? Was that your invention?

HADFIELD: I flew on the space shuttle twice as part of the flight crew. I flew on Atlantis and then on Endeavour. And both times on the way up to the launch pad, the director of flight operations or the chief astronaut, whoever was in the van with us, said that exact prayer. So that's...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

HADFIELD: That's a real thing. Yeah. And it's actually something you say, you know, during when you're out on a spacewalk or whatever, you know, when you're about to do something where it's irreversible and the consequence of doing it wrong is huge, you know, life and death or billions of dollars' worth of equipment. So yeah, that little prayer is good - it's - you know, it kind of gets your mind focused and pay attention to what's happening. And yeah, it's real.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's retired astronaut and ISS Commander Chris Hadfield. His new book is "The Apollo Murders."

Thank you very much.

HADFIELD: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.