It was a simple 31-second clip, uploaded to YouTube in early January—a watch flopping weightlessly around its owner’s wrist, the first such video from Commander Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station. No explanation, no context, just metal links and a watch face swishing around a hairy Canadian arm like a tangled length of seaweed. This, and the dozens like it that would follow, is how Chris Hadfield became the most important astronaut in decades.
For a long time now, we haven’t cared very much about the people of Earth who live in outer space. It’s strange; you’d think we would. But somehow over the years, leaving our planet to occupy the heavens instead became ordinary. We were bored by it. And it took Chris Hadfield and a YouTube channel to remind us how very stupid that is.
In just a few months of goofy videos and Facebook updates, Hadfield, who returns to Earth today, added as much whimsy and wonderment to the idea of people going to space as we’ve had in the last thirty years combined. A gentle little nudge in the most obvious of directions, and space seems new again.
On December 21st of last year, Commander Hadfield and his team (Expedition 35) docked with the ISS after a two-day flight in aboard a Soyuz TMA-07M, and began their mission. As space station dockings go, it was a relatively mundane affair. There’s footage available, the sort of by now amazing-but-boring NASA fare of shots of a control room spliced with PowerPointish graphics crossed with cameras showing spacecraft moving very fast, very slowly across our screens. The routineness of it all belies just how much fun we were in for over the course of the mission. And the fact that it seems routine speaks to just how jaded we've become with the amazing.
After the watch video, Hadfield started the hit parade. Clipping your nails in space. The nuts, in space. Washing your hands, making a sandwich, crying tears that won’t fall, brushing your teeth, getting sick. Ordinary stuff, BUT IN SPACE. For the last five months, he's been a celestial Bill Nye.
Hadfield was the first to realize, on a large scale, that we don’t want a lecture, we just want to see cool stuff. So he told what amounts to the Good Parts version of living in space. He got results, too. His most popular video has 7 and a half million views, with several more in the millions or hundreds of thousands. Across Twitter and Facebook, more than a million people are following his accounts. He’s not the first to fire off YouTube clips from outer space, or even to do it successfully. It’s the first time, though, that it wasn’t buried in chatter with command or poor cameras. In a way, it’s more a case of production value winning out, a lesson of substance demanding style.
Style comes with smarts, though. The sneaky important reason behind Hadfield's popularity was how adeptly he aimed himself at an audience. #ValentinesFromSpace basically overran Twitter with heart shapes from around the cosmos. A chat with William Shatner is going to win you a good amount of fans as well. That's key in more than just an opportunistic way—the more eyes you get on fun stuff like this, the more chances they get to see the impressive work being done in space. And if enough public sentiment gets back behind our astronauts, you never know, maybe public funding follows.
Hadfield straddled the lines between teacher and performer, educated expert and screwball with a camcorder, just about perfectly. He took requests from 10th grade science classes, and posted Nuts In Space, just for the hell of it. Never taking itself too seriously, but always seriously enough to tuck in some relatable piece of information, even something as dumb as what a tin of weightless salty nuts looks like. Every time you worried he’d veer off course, mugging a few beats too long, or just plain running out of ideas, he’d rein it back in. In short, he understood how to be the front man.
The ISS needed the star power. The effects of gravity on earthworm and tortoise mating habits are important, sure. And paramount to some poor post-doc’s livelihood, no doubt. But to the public, space life had essentially become a remote and sterile laboratory for scientists and experiments and lab technicians. And no one has ever been inspired by peeking in on what amounts to a CCTV feed of lab technicians at work.
It’s telling that even a genuine space station emergency this past weekend—the ISS scrambling a harried, last-minute spacewalk to fix a freak ammonia leak—drew so little interest. It's a fitting snapshot of, if not a lack of regard for the modern astronaut’s existence, then how totally unaware we are of it.
Oh, we’d still peek in for shuttle takeoffs and landings, but never much more than that. Our fascination’s limits didn’t reach any farther than the still-confounding technological marvel of catapulting human beings off of the planet and retrieving them intact. There’s still spectacle in that. But the actual act of living in outer space—actually living! like the future!—to most Earthbound human beings was, for years, reduced to grainy, picture-in-picture camera feeds replayed on the evening news or during chats with the President.
In a lot of ways, that's only natural. All of the immediate questions have been covered since grade school. Yes, you really float. No, you don’t have to take baths, exactly. Gross, this is what they actually eat? Individually, we might not know what happens to the human body in space in any greater detail, but we know that the answers are a few Wikipedia searches away. We could find out how they pooped, if we really wanted. And there’s no great curiosity of the easily-found-out.
Our skygazing attention fell, rightly, to newer and more powerful telescopes, uncovering parts of the universe we’d never seen, or projects like the Mars Curiosity landing. Mechanical artifices remotely bringing the universe’s secrets back home. All of which is totally justified, but removed from what comprises NASA's soul: the race to plunge humanity's reach as far into the cosmos as possible—ideally with humans along for the ride.
Hadfield’s channel served as something like a war correspondent, or better yet, dispatches from a good friend giving us the real skinny on what space life was like. Even the obvious stuff elicited shocks of whimsy, in that do it again, do it again sort of way that new toys always have. Outer freaking space should always feel like that, but for too long, it hasn’t really. Now it does again, and maybe everyday wonders stacked on top of each other will never add up to a moon landing, but it's enough to make some of the jaded dream again. For that, we owe a big thanks to Chris Hadfield.
Hadfield isn’t being put out to pasture, exactly. He’ll presumably continue to be involved in a variety of missions, and his official biography already reads like an exploration nerd’s wet dream. He’ll be around. But even so, we’ll miss the having that friend out in space to ask all those questions that don't really matter, but more importantly, that we don't know the answers to yet.