Looking back on it now, Leroy Chiao isn’t sure he should have had children. He’s happy he did. But still. He’s seen some stuff.
Specifically, he’s seen Earth from orbit. He served as the commander of the International Space Station in 2004, after his children were born, and came to a hard realization: Earth is dying. “Humankind is doomed,” he explains in even tone. “The question is how quickly.” He identifies the main issue as overpopulation, which make him and his children part of the problem (though, always the scientist he notes he only has replacement level kids and isn’t adding to the total number of humans). Talking to Chaio, it’s clear he’s comfortable alternating quickly between thinking on an alienatingly long timescale and picking up the kids from school. It’s an impressive bit of compartmentalization. Fathers every could learn a lot from Chiao’s honesty.
Dr. Chiao responded to the Fatherly Questionnaire from his home in Houston.
What is your name?
I’m a former NASA astronaut and International Space Station commander. Now I’m the cofounder and CEO of a company called One Orbit. We do corporate keynotes, training and also education programs for students.
How old are your children?
My kids are ten years old. They are twins, a boy and a girl.
What are their names?
Henry and Caroline.
Are they named after anyone in particular?
Caroline is named after my wife’s mother, Carol. There’s no Henry in either of our families, but it’s a name we just liked. Caroline’s middle name is Cornelia after my wife’s favorite grandfather, Cornelius .Henry’s middle name it Tao Ching which is a combination of my parent’s first names in Chinese. My father’s name was Tsu Tao; my mother’s name was Ching. Her English name was Cherry.
Do you have any cute nicknames for your kids?
Caroline we call her Mei Mei, which is Chinese for “younger sister.” Henry has fewer nicknames. I call him Buddy. He’s my Buddy.
What do they call you?
They call me Daddy, either in English or in Chinese, which is 爸爸. It sounds like BáBá.
How often do you see them?
When I’m in town, I see them everyday. But on any given year, I’m traveling about somewhere around thirty percent of the time.
Describe yourself as a father in three words.
Dedicated, loving, and supportive.
Describe your father in three words.
Supportive, authoritative, and practical.
What are your strengths as a father?
I love my kids unconditionally and I’m able to offer very good practical guidance.
What are your weaknesses as a father? Relatedly, what are your biggest regrets?
I don’t have any big regrets as a father…or most anything. I am a bit of a softie with my daughter but my wife is the tough guy.
What is your favorite activity to do with your children that is your father/daughter, father/son thing?
In Houston, where we live, there’s too much light pollution and no mountains so stargazing is out of the question. Recently they have learned how to ride bicycles. One of my favorite things recently has been going out with them to ride bikes. I go run and they ride their bikes with me.
What has been the moment you were most proud of as a parent and why?
The day they were born was probably the most awesome day of my life. They hadn’t done anything yet but I was very proud of them. Having my kids was the profound thing that’s ever happened in my life, much more profound than flying in space.
What heirloom did your father give to you if any?
My father was a very practical person. He left China with pretty much nothing and he’s never been a material person. He’s never had any jewelry, except for wristwatches, but even those weren’t special to him. But his biggest gift to me was teaching me the rigor of thinking things through and being reasonable and logic.
What heirloom do you want to leave for your children, if anything?
My wife Karena and I are both raising them with an emphasis on character. We are teaching them the importance of being good people, kind to others, being good citizens, helping other people. That’s the important thing we can leave for them. As far as physical heirlooms, I’m certainly going to leave things from my space-life adventures with them. Things like my wristwatches, items I have carried into space. I have some gloves from doing spacewalks in Russian space suits. The Russians actually let you keep your gloves. I don’t have anything from the American program since they make you return everything. The one exception is that I have my gold astronaut pin and a space medal. I had to pay for those too. They send you a bill.
Describe the dad special for dinner.
They really love when I make bacon. They call it “Daddy Bacon.” They also love it when I grill steaks. They call them “Daddy steaks.” I marinate them with some soy sauce and other spices on the grill. They also love it when I make veal picata and risotto. That’s their favorite things I make.
Are you religious and are you raising your kids in that tradition?
I am no religious. I’ve certainly been exposed to and looked into different kinds of organized religion when I was younger. I’ve concluded that I’m not a religious person, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not spiritual. There is some kind of order to the universe.. As far as my kids go, they have been exposed to religions. For a while we had them in Jewish school and a Presbyterian church. Right now they’re in a Methodist school. We want to expose them to different kinds of experiences.
What is a mistake you make growing up that you want to ensure your children do not repeat?
I was always very serious, probably because of my father. I was always a very serious student, but maybe I didn’t have as much fun as I should have when I was younger. Maybe I didn’t take enough time, especially during my university days, to enjoy things a little more. I would want my kids to enjoy things a little more when they are younger.
Besides saying it, how do you let your kids know that you love them?
This is something that is actually quite important to me. My father was very much an authoritarian figure, very rigid and unemotional. My mother’s family was much more warm. My sister told me that when I was five years old, my father sat me down and told me I was a big boy and that I shouldn’t hug or kiss my mother anymore. From that point on, I never did. So I tend to overcompensate a little as a father now. If I see my kids, I’m always hugging them and kissing them on the top of the head.