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It has been globally instructive watching Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield turn space flight into a performance art form and in so doing reconfigure what it means to be a successful astronaut.
To appreciate this you had to begin by knowing two things. One is what motivated Hadfield to himself go up in space. He told the Globe and Mail last summer that as a nine-year-old farmers’ son in southern Ontario he saw Neil Armstrong on television landing on the moon, and “I just found it absolutely inspiring; fundamentally inspiring. And I resolved that night, July 20, 1969, to be an astronaut when I grew up.”
He is far from being alone in seeing moon walking as a good career choice. Julie Payette, another Canadian astronaut, watched subsequent moon take offs and landings and bouncy moon buggy rides and thought. “This is so cool. I’d love to do that. This is what I want to do.”
The second thing to appreciate is what astronaut Chris Hadfield actually did while in space on 31st of January 2013. I chose this date at random but think it is representative of most days aboard the International Space Station. In terms of formal work Hadfield spent the bulk of his time setting up a new version of Robonaut. What’s a Robonaut, you might well say? I quote from the NASA webpage describing it. “The first humanoid robot in space was sent to the space station with the intention of eventually taking over tasks too dangerous or mundane for astronauts, and the first such task identified for it was monitoring air velocity…. It’s not exactly a job that requires a rocket scientist — or astronaut — to accomplish….”
Specifically what Hadfield and a fellow astronaut did is take Robonaut2 out of its “sleeping compartment”, assemble it, turn it on, and set up a “task board for the upcoming remote commanding of it” and then turn it off. That was however almost fascinating when compared to what he did later in the day, which was to install ultrasound equipment to measure noise in the ISS. And don’t think other astronauts’ work was more engrossing. Their tasks included jobs like cleaning air filters, cleaning water filters, and copying data from the Kulonovskiy Kristall experiment onto a hard drive. This Russian experiment aims at a – I again quote from the website which describes it – “Study of dynamic and structural characteristics of the coulomb systems formed by the charged dispersed diamagnetic macroparticles in the magnetic trap.”
I recount all of this to point out the obvious. No child, adult or sentient ape ever said to themselves: “I long to become an astronaut because I so, so want to be a weightless robot assembler, or a floating lab technician, or a twisting in space maintenance person.” Let me repeat: No starry headed human ever dreamed of going into space to do what astronauts are actually supposed to be doing in space today.
And that brings me to what Chris Hadfield did in his spare time on January 31, 2013. He sent 11 tweets on that day to the 392,107 people who were at that moment following him. It should be pointed out that Hadfield didn’t do what he had done on many other days, that is release a video podcast explaining something about being in space – how you wash your hands without water for example – or have a question/answer sessions with people on Earth, particularly with school children. Or sing while playing his guitar and tumbling.
Some tweet exchanges sounded mundane but in retrospect weren’t.
Jimi Walsh, who describes himself as a “Musician Guitarist/Composer … Connoisseur, Lothario and part-time Rock’n Roll Rebel” tweeted he was having bacon and eggs for breakfast and wondered what Hadfield had had and if there was anything he missed.
Hadfield replied he had had “oatmeal, dehydrated scrambled eggs, instant cider, instant Kona coffee and dried apricots.”
Which caused Jenny Woods to tweet that Hadfield should remind followers in the U.K. that American cider is non-alcoholic. And others to say he must miss the smell of breakfast and did one know what spending time in space did to taste buds? And this led the Canadian Space Agency to weigh in pointing out that Hadfield had answered this question in an open discussion with the Governor General the day before.
That is to say how it “feels” to be in space, the sensations which we experience in a milieu that hardly anyone has ever been in continues to excite humans’ imagination. Not to mention actually talk/texting with someone there.
But a very different version of space as an experience was seen via what Hadfield did in between all his less-than-fascinating “real” work on the ISS. That is alerted people via tweets to the images he had photographed out of the windows of the International Space Station. A full moon rising and looking as it always does like a biologically mute Earth. The oddly cross shaped patterns the lights of Reno, Nevada – “the biggest little town on earth” Hadfield called it, cast. The muscular, intestinal twists of the Amazon River; the perfect circle a meteor crater in Africa forms. “The Earth has a belly button,” Hadfield poetically chimed in about it.
The most interesting responses by far came from an almost off-hand tweet Hadfield sent out. Officially off work he asked his Twitter followers “if you had a free evening in space, what would you do?”
There were jokey answers. Catch M & M’s in your mouth as they free-floated in space. Sing “Stardust” by Hoagie Carmichael. Sunbathe. But over and over people said things like “simply relish where I was” and “look down on our beautiful planet” and “float while looking out the space station window.”
And that to my mind is the subversive message in Hadfield’s tweets. In 2013 with nobody on the Moon or Mars or anywhere else, the most important reason to go into space is to experience going into space and convey what you see and feel to people still on Earth. And if that is the case two things follow.
One is that NASA and CSA and other agencies should select astronauts who are really good at explaining what it feels like to be there and even better good at looking down on Earth and seeing what should be imaged from space. Think recruiting campaigns actively searching for space minded poets and photographers and emotive writers rather than free floating lab rats, and maintenance people, and robot assemblers.
You do this because Hadfield has taught us that daily communication from space isn’t a tangential “social media” activities that “cool” astronauts might do. His tweets aren’t spare time after work afterthoughts. Rather showing what an astronauts sees and feels in space and communicating that is what really inspires most of us on Earth who, among other things, fund space flights.
And consequently after he returns Hadfield should give communication’s seminars to existing astronauts explaining that their most significant purpose on the ISS is to inspire some 21st century children looking at their tweets and podcasts and photos of the earth to say to themselves:
“I want to be the best astronaut you can be when people aren’t going to the Moon. And that means I want to be a tweeting, talking, singing, flipping about astro-tourist – just like Chris Hadfield.”