IT STARTED, as so many love affairs do these days, with a tweet.
“The low late February sun shines across the skinny waist of Scotland, almost to Edinburgh,” tweeted Commander Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station one winter afternoon a few months back. And there, alongside it, was an image of my home as I had never seen it before: Scotland from space, an eerie snapshot of Glasgow, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, brown and bumpy, the landscape flecked with clouds, the waters a deep dark blue.
Commander Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who has spent the past five months aboard the International Space Station and possesses the finest moustache seen on screen since Tom Skerritt tore a strip off Tom Cruise in Top Gun, had entered my life. It was love at first tweet.
That day, Commander Hadfield posted seven pictures of Scotland taken from the ISS, including images of Skye, Edinburgh and Glasgow, each of them accompanied by poetic musings on the landscape. Here is a man who gets it, I thought. Here is a man I want to follow.
I am not alone. All over the world, women – and men – have been falling for Hadfield’s understated Canadian charm, his ability to bring the extraordinary into our lives, and that spectacular moustache. At last count, he had just under one million followers on Twitter.
As the man who until last Sunday was in charge of the International Space Station, 53-year-old Hadfield, a former Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot who manned the ISS alongside American Thomas Marshburn and Russian Roman Romanenko, made it his mission to connect with the world in a way that is perhaps only possible when you are floating above it in zero gravity. Last week, just before he returned to Earth, he surpassed himself with a video in which he sang a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, a melancholy rendition of the song in which he stared into the camera, eyes wide, space just visible outside the window behind him, musing on “sitting in a tin can / high above the world”. Ground Control simply melted.
In all, Hadfield spent 144 days on the International Space Station, 146 days in space, orbited the Earth 2,336 times and clocked up 62 million miles, all while tweeting several times a day, holding regular video conferences with individuals as diverse as folk singer Lorenna McKennitt and Russian president Vladimir Putin, and uploading amusing YouTube videos about how you go about cutting your hair in zero gravity. Oh, and he still managed to remember to send his Mum flowers on Mothers’ Day. No wonder he has become the tweeting woman’s crumpet.
A Google search under the terms “commander hadfield wife” (it was research) yields an astonishing 338,000 results. And yes ladies, he is taken, by wife Helene, a woman who seems as in awe of her husband as the rest of us, telling a Canadian TV station last week: “I trust that he can fix things and he knows what’s going on and he’s trained for so many years and he’s so competent. But most of all, I just know that he loves what he does so it doesn’t matter what the risks are.” Sigh.
Hadfield is, of course, a master of social media. Early on in his trip he did a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) a rite of passage for anyone who wants to be taken seriously online (even Barack Obama has done one), where he revealed that he wanted someone “with a good moustache” to play him in the film version of his life and that Australia looks “the coolest” from space because of the unique colours and textures of the outback. Then came the YouTube videos, the Facebook updates, the answers to burning questions such as “how do you brush your teeth in space” (the answer, it seems, is carefully).
But it was the poetry in his tweets, sent from the black depths of space and popping up on our smartphones, tablets and computers as we went about our daily business, that really sucked us into his zero gravity world.
“The Earth bubbled and spat like boiling porridge, long ago in Saudi Arabia.” he wrote one night. On another he mused that: “While the Newfoundland ice formed a heraldic dragon, these Pacific clouds look more like Woodstock, of Peanuts fame.” And they did, sort of.
He performed in live link-up concerts, and answered questions from curious schoolchildren, encouraging them to think that if he could captain the International Space Station then, well, so could they. There were updates on his diet: “Today’s Space Brunch – waffles, Cdn maple syrup, freeze-dried strawberries, jerky, instant OJ & coffee. Delicious!”
And then there were the factoids: “It turns out that onions DO make you cry in space, too. Just here, tears don’t fall.” The patriotic tweets: “I’ve been wearing my Leafs shirt here on the Space Station all day – good luck and play well in the game tonight. Go @MapleLeafs!” And the celebrity encounters: “Talked with Neil Young tonight, he in his hybrid 1959 Lincoln, me in a spaceship. Discussed Earth ecology & writing music. A heart of gold.”
Back on Earth, we were hooked. Even the ’tache took on a life of its own with “tribute” moustaches popping up all over the internet. Comedian Dara Ó Briain tweeted a picture of himself with a moustache on a stick, only to have it duly retweeted by the Commander himself.
But perhaps Hadfield’s greatest appeal is that his message was one that was, quite literally, universal. In a world wracked with war and recession, there are precious few positive global events to celebrate.
Yet here was a guy who had left the world, was on the outside looking in, and only had good things to say about it. The Earth was in need of a love letter, and Hadfield wrote it to us, using every social media tool at his disposal.
On the night he relinquished command of the ISS, he tweeted a spectacular image of a moon rise. “Tonight’s Finale,” he wrote. “The Moon rising over a bed of cloud. A constant reminder to us all of what can be achieved.”
Welcome home, commander. Thanks for the Twemories. «