Chris Hadfield’s use of social media made space seem less alien

I don’t think we – the people of Earth – have felt as connected to, or excited about, a space programme since the ‘Apollo’ moon landings

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield give a thumbs up after the Russian Soyuz space capsule landed some 150 km southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhsta. Photograph: Reuters

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield give a thumbs up after the Russian Soyuz space capsule landed some 150 km southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhsta. Photograph: Reuters

 

I feel bereft. My one small comfort is knowing I am not alone. There are 940,118 people on Twitter feeling the same this week. And another 333,000 on Facebook.

That’s how many of us followed the daily activities of one trim, mustachioed Canadian, astronaut Chris Hadfield, as he zoomed past us overhead on the International Space Station 16 times a day, at more than 27,400km/h (17,000mph).

The jovial superman took the time to make space not just beautiful, weird and wonderful but, somehow, comfortingly prosaic too.

The views he showed us daily, snapped with his Nikon from the ISS’s cupola – a glassy window on the universe as well as our home planet – were extraordinary. At least one a day was truly gasp-inducing.

But I also learned how to cook spinach and wash hands in space. I know what Russian-issue astronaut pyjamas look like (amusingly childish, making the astronauts look like giant 10-year-olds). I know how an astronaut trims nails in space, and gets a haircut (it involves using a vacuum – who wants a floating toenail rind or stray hair in their eye?).

But this week, as you certainly know unless you have avoided all news, Hadfield returned home with two fellow astronauts, hurtling back to Earth in a tiny pod. We were getting an insider view all the way to the end. In all the years the space station has been up there, I’d never seen – much less thought about or, to be honest, cared about – those return pods and the risk-filled journey back to our blue planet.

I had an idea they were larger. But there one was, tiny and seemingly fragile, crammed full of the astronauts like mackerels in a tin, in one of the final shots posted to the internet by Hadfield’s sons (who devoted enormous time and energy to making this thrilling social media space journey possible for the rest of us).


Safe return
For the first time since the space shuttle flights just after the Challenger disaster, I went to bed worried about the safe return of astronauts. One of the first things I did on Tuesday morning was check on Facebook to see if all had gone well.

It wasn’t the first worry connected to Hadfield and the ISS during the final days of this particular mission. Last week Hadfield had suddenly posted to report an external ammonia leak out into space, from the station. This was a very serious problem, as he explained – ammonia is the coolant that makes life possible in the station and keeps the equipment that runs the station from overheating.

Thanks to Hadfield’s social media prominence, the story was soon all over the mainstream media. Nasa reported back that the men were in no danger – not entirely reassuring – and that a spacewalk would likely be needed to try to repair the leak. But those of us following Hadfield already knew all this. He’d flagged the possibility early on, and gave us a shot of the eerily empty and waiting spacesuits.

We also knew that he and his fellow astronauts were up late studying their manuals in preparation for the walk.

And we got to watch the walk and the repair, streamed live, if we chose.

Again, it was nerve-wracking stuff, waiting to hear how serious the problem was, whether it could be fixed, or if the station would have to be abandoned as astronauts fled in those tiny pods. But the station lived to see another day.

All of which underlines the fact that the space agencies must build on the opportunity afforded by Hadfield’s groundbreaking (oops, wrong metaphor – space-changing? Earth-shattering? High-flying?) use of social media on this mission.

Space exploration needs to be Tweeted, Facebooked, Tumblred, YouTubed, blogged. Images given as gifts to Wikipedia. Videos posted for all to enjoy.

I don’t think we – the people of Earth – have felt as connected to, or excited about, a space programme since the Apollo moon landings. At a time of climate change, wars, pollution, wildlife and landscape loss, those of us who followed Hadfield can better understand what we have in our trust: Earth’s magnificent and varied landscapes and seascapes, its delicate, life-giving, pale circle of atmosphere, a family of humankind with more in common than in dispute, inhabiting a tiny blue speck hanging in darkness.

We need space exploration and experimentation to understand this, and to learn more about what lies beyond our own globe.

ISS: keep it coming. Don’t let Hadfield’s social media legacy be wasted.

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