Commander Hadfield: a real-life space oddity

From Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph: Chris Hadfield, retiring commander of the International Space Station, is not just an unlikely pop star, he’s a spokesman for the cosmos, says Tom Chivers

For there he is, sitting in a tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing left to do. Or not much, anyway.

Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, social media phenomenon and owner of the solar system’s most reassuring moustache, has come to the end of his stint in charge of the International Space Station (ISS). During his five months in orbit, he has done more than probably any astronaut since the Apollo missions to transform the image of space exploration, and he has done it all from within the poky confines of the ISS, usually considered a gigantic $150 billion white space-elephant.

Shortly before midnight on Sunday, UK time, Hadfield tweeted: “With deference to the genius of David Bowie, here’s Space Oddity, recorded on Station. A last glimpse of the world.” He included a link to a YouTube video, which was simply him, in the space station, with a guitar, singing a subtly reworded version of the classic song. He has an excellent voice, clear and tuneful, high without being shrill. Filmed in freefall, his guitar hanging in mid-air next to him as he sings “I’m floating in a most peculiar way”, and interspersed with external shots of the station and the Earth beneath it, it has a strong claim to be the greatest pop video ever made.

His farewell to the station is in keeping with his time there. During his command, Hadfield has been a prolific Twitter user, sharing extraordinary images of the Earth from space with his 800,000 followers. (“The beauty of the Bahamas is surreal,” he said of one, taken on New Year’s Day. “Every blue that exists.”) He tweets, unmoderated, using an ordinary laptop and a somewhat creaky web connection via a relay through Houston.

He is not the first astronaut to tweet: one of his predecessors as ISS commander, Col Douglas H Wheelock, and Soichi Noguchi, another ISS crewman, did so before. But Hadfield has thrown himself into the experience, making videos, answering questions, even taking part in an “Ask Me Anything” with users of the website Reddit, which was exactly what it sounds like. (Sample answers: the scariest thing he’s seen in space is a large meteorite burning up over Australia – “to think of that hypersonic dumb lump of rock randomly hurtling into us sent a shiver up my back”; the ISS sees 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24 hours; and if a film is made of his life, he wants to be played by “someone with a good moustache”.)

“Who’d have thought that five months away from the planet would make you feel closer to it?” he mused, in a goodbye video filmed with the blue planet glowing in the windows of the ISS’s observation deck. “Not because I miss it, but because seeing the planet this way and being able to share it has allowed me to get a direct reflection back, immediately, from so many people, that it makes me feel that this experience is not individual but shared.” And it seems the feeling is mutual: he has brought the ISS back into the news in a way that it hasn’t been almost since its launch.

The now venerable station – its first component was launched in 1998 and its first crew members arrived in 2000 – has been continuously occupied for more than 12 years. For all that time, its validity as a scientific enterprise has been under question. Millions of miles away, a huge robot is crawling around the surface of Mars, taking samples; billions of miles away, Voyager is finally bursting free of the solar system, reporting for the first time from outside our little bubble of space. The ISS, a mere 250 miles above our heads, is telling us little new, according to its critics.

That’s not exactly fair: last month, one of its experiments, called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, noticed a tantalising hint of what might be dark matter; before that, it performed dozens of smaller experiments, and simply having humans live in space for months at a time has produced valuable information on the effect of microgravity on our bodies. But some, such as the US physicist Robert Park, have said that this is a feeble reward for the vast expense: the ISS, he says, is the “greatest single obstacle to the continued conquest of space”; a hundred-billion-dollar “boondoggle”.

Perhaps, though, the critics are looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps the primary mission of the space station shouldn’t be one of scientific discovery, but of inspiration. For decades, mankind’s push for space was military-led, secretive. The idea of the commander of a mission sending back videos of himself wringing out a wet cloth to show how water behaves in zero gravity, or explaining why you need to be careful making a sandwich in space (crumbs, you see), would have been unthinkable.

But now space exploration is opening up. The ISS itself is a multinational operation, and dozens of countries have advanced space programmes. More excitingly, commercial enterprises are joining in: last year, the module Space X Dragon became the first privately owned spacecraft to dock with the ISS. More than a stern-faced officer-scientist or boy’s-own-adventure hero, what space exploration needs now is an advocate: someone who can remind us why we wanted to go to the universe on our doorstep in the first place.

There have been eloquent spacemen and women before, of course. Neil Armstrong himself used to come over all poetic about the joys, not of space travel, but of physics and engineering: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer – born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.” But he was a comparative recluse, shy of the limelight. Hadfield, with his mischievous sense of humour, approachable demeanour and palpable awe at what he sees, has been the perfect spokesman for the cosmos.

It is perhaps ironic, though, that he has created such excitement not with pictures of Saturn’s rings or distant nebulae – which robot space explorers such as the Cassini-Huygens probe and the Hubble telescope have sent us – but with a new perspective on our own pale blue dot. Pictures of a river in Bolivia lit up by the sunrise and glowing like a firework, or of Vesuvius, looking straight down the volcano’s caldera, have come as a reminder that our planet can compete with the wider universe for remarkable sights.

Now his advocacy has come to an end. His bones and muscles weakened by five months in microgravity, he is shutting the door to the Soyuz capsule and launching himself, with three of his crew, back to Earth. The next commander will be his crew-mate Pavel Vinogradov, a Russian veteran and a highly skilled astronaut, but not, it seems, a social media fanatic. Two members of the new crew do use Twitter though, so perhaps the stream of extraordinary images and video won’t dry up entirely.

It’s a shame Hadfield’s stay is over. Having a tweeting, photo-taking, guitar-playing, video-conferencing astronaut for the past five months has been a revelation: space has rarely seemed so close, or the world so astonishing – even photographs of Humberside look remarkable from orbit.

Perhaps his example will encourage others to do likewise; but in the meantime, Major Chris, you’ve really made the grade, and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear. Now it’s time to leave the capsule, if you dare.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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