Chris Hadfield On Going Viral In Space

Chris Hadfield became a star as commander of the International Space Station, reaching out via social media to offer the public entertaining glimpses into life in orbit. Shortly after his return from the ISS, Hadfield announced his retirement from the Canadian Space Agency. Linda Wertheimer talks with Hadfield about his efforts to keep the public interested in space travel.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

By the time the last three shuttle mission returned to Earth two years ago, the image of a crew blasting off through the clouds and then landing again was still fascinating, if a touch routine. As for what the astronauts did up there, most did not really have a clear idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")

COMMANDER CHRIS HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom - seven, six. Commencing countdown, engines on.

WERTHEIMER: Enter Chris Hadfield. The veteran Canadian astronaut retired earlier this year, after returning from a tour as the commander of the International Space Station. This is Hadfield performing a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" from space.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")

HADFIELD: (Singing) This is ground control to Major Tom. You've really made the grade.

WERTHEIMER: That video has been viewed more than 16 million times, a total viral hit. There were dozens of videos posted on YouTube from Hadfield's final mission. Often, Hadfield would show mundane tasks that are kind of tricky without gravity. Here is cooking dried spinach in a packet.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

HADFIELD: To prepare the spinach, you just attach it to the water distributor, choose the right quantity, and push the button.

WERTHEIMER: Of course, after you eat the spinach, you need to brush your teeth. But spitting out toothpaste in space can be messy.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

HADFIELD: OK. So now, what I'm going to do, I've got a mouth-load of toothpaste stuff, I've got a dirty toothbrush. So what I do is I just swallow the toothpaste.

WERTHEIMER: Hadfield also made a big impact on Twitter, constantly posting photos from his unique perch of the beauty and destruction around the globe.

When we sat down with Commander Hadfield recently at the Canadian Embassy here in Washington, he explained that the technology that allowed him to share his experiences with folks back home was unheard of when he first left the planet in 1995.

HADFIELD: My first flight, the way that I talked to the ground was through ham radio, you know, it was very limited communication. And I'd take a photograph up there, it was on film. I had to wait till I landed, get it processed and then do a big film review and look through, see if I saw a nice picture. And if I found a nice picture of the outback, well, there I am six weeks after landing, now what do I do with it? I can't, like, mail it to everybody in Australia. Now, with the Internet and with digital photography and with social media, I could take a beautiful picture or a scary picture of the fires in the outback, and within minutes, I could let the people that that was affecting see it directly and talk about it, and open up a dialogue. And so it allowed me to do what I'd always wanted to do, and that was share the ride.

WERTHEIMER: And that was the combination that made it work the way it did?

HADFIELD: Yeah, the fact that if I didn't get it right on this pass, I could try again tomorrow. It was sort of like being an art hunter. You know, I'm waiting for this beautiful doe to walk into the clearing, just so that I can try and capture it, and it was just a wonderful privilege. We were busy up there doing all the work and all the science and fixing problems as they arose, but at the same time, just a straight, wondrous, human opportunity of being there and seeing the world that way and sharing with everybody became an absolute imperative, also.

WERTHEIMER: I think a lot of us wondered, you know, you were having way too much fun.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: But you also have to work.

(LAUGHTER)

HADFIELD: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: What was the work that you were doing?

HADFIELD: We - the Space Station is typically running about 130 different experiments, everything from looking with special cameras at changes to the surface of the Earth - so we're watching for disasters, as well as climate change; looking out to the universe, we're collecting dark matter and dark energy from the universe on a Noble Prize-level type experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. And then all sorts of experiments inside that you can't do on Earth, because up there, basically, we're freed from gravity, so studying how the flames propagate, how fluid behaves.

There's all sorts of applications when you could see how capillary flow happens. The human body, studying the rapid aging, the osteoporosis that I experienced, why we get it, and then when I get back to Earth, why does it reverse, trying to understand the body's control mechanisms. And also using the Space Station to help design spaceships. When we leave Earth, which we're going to do, go further, we need the stuff that works. We need materials that you can count on, toilets you can count on. You know, what food do you need? How do you keep the crew from going nuts? All those things, we're inventing how to do all that on the Space Station.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that's important for the future of the program, to try to make a big extra effort to engage people, when we're all so concerned about how much it all costs?

HADFIELD: You know, you can't support the Space Station if you don't know it exists. People have to know it exists, and see that it serves us at a lot of different levels, everything from understanding how to extinguish flame inside a wall, to the fact that you can record a David Bowie video in weightlessness and thrill, you know, tens of millions of people. All of that is possible up there. You need to make an effort to engage people in it and show them that this is, of all the things that we're choosing to do with our tax dollars, this is one of the really cool, interesting things. And then they can make their own decision as to whether we should support it or not.

WERTHEIMER: The science has always been interesting, of course, but the thing that I think most people on Earth think about is not going to the Space Station, but going past the Space Station, traveling in space.

HADFIELD: For thousands of years, people sailed in rivers and up and down the coast. And only after they had invented so many things - navigation, food supply, really good sails, ships they could count on - did they turn away from shore and go over the horizon. They had to invent a lot of things first. There may have been people that went over the horizon, but they probably didn't come back, because they didn't know enough stuff yet.

And we are, right now, sailing within the sight of shore. We're trying to figure out all those things as we go around the world, so that when you do fire your engines and go 40 percent faster and leave the Earth, and it's been really hard to turn around and come back, that you can count on your sailing ship, that it's going to keep you alive and get you where you want to go. And that's what the Space Station is. It is the crucible where we're learning and testing and figuring out all those things so that we can go further, which is inevitably what we're going to do.

WERTHEIMER: So are you the ambassador from space now? Is that your new job?

HADFIELD: Ever since I was nine years old and I watched Neil and Buzz walk on the moon, I have felt passionately that this is an interesting human adventure. This is one of the things we're doing that is really fundamentally important, as we leave our home planet, but also exciting. And so I've been that space ambassador since my 10th birthday, and I've just been lucky enough to command a spaceship and now I have even more things to talk about.

WERTHEIMER: Commander Chris Hadfield, thank you very much.

HADFIELD: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to meet you in person and have a chance to talk with you.

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