Monday, 13 May 2013

Commander Hadfield comes back to Earth

Written by

Hadfield used social media to bring space to the people in a way that has never been done before. What was it about him that reinvigorated public engagement with astronauts?

Commander Chris Hadfield is coming back to Earth today. After five months orbiting the planet in the International Space Station, he will return on the Soyuz, landing in Kazakhstan after handing over to his replacement Pavel Vladimirovich Vinogradov.

It’s not like we missed him during those five months. In fact, few of us would have known who he was before he docked to relieve outgoing Commander Sunita Williams. During his time on the ISS, his engagement with social media brought home the true brilliance and banality of life in space.

His daily pictures of the world below were retweeted by thousands, he took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, shot the breeze with Captain Kirk, hosted Google hangouts, posted videos on YouTube, conducted instructional sessions with school students and took the time to reply to his throng of adoring and curious followers.

Using social media, Commander Hadfield broadcast an irresistible mix of homespun charm and eloquent astonishment. When he wasn’t working on official experiments or maintenance, he was more than happy to share the view from his cupola – thrilling in coastlines, deserts and glistening, daintily-lit threads of metropolis, as viewed from space.

The public response was overwhelmingly positive, with millions watching his hypnotic videos, retweeting his poetically captioned photos and finding myriad other ways to validate Hadfield and his work online. As a result, he has become our new space celebrity, almost reminiscent of America’s first astronauts.

It was a deliberate strategy. According to the Independent, the Canadian Space Agency was “frustrated with low public interest in its online content during previous missions” and devised a new strategy for Hadfield’s stay on the ISS, switching to fun and interesting videos that capitalised on his charisma and genuine enthusiasm for sharing his work with the world.

Hadfield’s son, Evan, works from Germany in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency to support his father’s social media presence. Reportedly putting in 16 hour days for no pay, Evan updates his father’s Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and Pinterest, Tumblr and Soundcloud accounts.

Other astronauts have been on social media, but none with the same frequency and personal contact that Hadfield devoted to it. A unique mix of technology, an eye for fun, interesting content, a dedicated back up team and good old charisma.

All warmth and wonder, the Commander is filled with a need to entertain and educate. He donned bouncy red hearts on Valentine’s Day, explained how to sleep in zero gravity, faked an alien encounter for April Fools and chronicled the Australian bushfires from space and …performed an Earth-Space Station duet with the members of the Barenaked Ladies (well, we can’t all be perfect).

In a medium where the everyday rules, social media has become the new barometer for earthly mundanity and opinion setting. We share our lunches, articles are retweeted in cluster and sharing information is now more likely to occur in jpg format than through discussion. It’s remarkable how a sophisticated array of technologies can be used to convey the mundane, to such delight.

This is what Hadfield and the Canadian Space Agency hook into – exposing the mundane in an unreal environment. The delight in seeing how the everyday looks – sleeping, pooping, eating, wringing out rags and crying – in a strange place is fascinating. They moved from the impersonal - science and spacewalks - to the personal, their audience responded with an enduring emotional investment.

Humans don’t bond with people they perceive as substantially different from themselves – we predictably self-organise. We seek similarities and friendly responses. With every video showing a basic human experience or task, and every photo showing amusing jokes or (for most people) a glimpse of their home country as seen from orbit, we are able to bond with Hadfield. He’s like us, just in a different space.

Could any other Commander have achieved this following? Others have tried, with varying degrees of success. Hadfield’s popularity isn’t only because of the amazing sights he’s seen, or even the hilarious and interesting events he shares. It’s just him, and it’s possible no other astronaut will be able to replicate his accessibility, warmth, wonder and eye for the newsworthy.

Hadfield is incredibly responsive and personable. He is also very tuned into to what people will find interesting, no doubt with some help and advice from the Canadian Space Agency.

Sunday’s spacewalk to investigate and repair a suspected ammonia leak is a case in point. Gone is the time when such matters would be confined to a 60 second news update. Instead, the spacewalk was live streamed, updates tweeted, photos uploaded and blogs published as the clock ticked on. Hadfield and the Canadian Space Agency brought people into an event and kept them there, longer than ever before.

Despite inspiring his home country (and the world with it), Commander Hadfield will face challenges on his return. Funding to the Canadian Space Agency has been massively slashed and notable figures within the Agency have been leaving the industry, frustrated with the government’s lack of support when public sentiment is so high.

It’s an interesting juncture for the community and surprising in its contrasts. As funding for space programs plummet, people have become more acquainted (and excited) about space travel and habitation. Over 700,000 people have recently applied to become part of the first Mars One colony/reality tv show – a sentence I never thought or hoped to write in my lifetime. However, it does show that the desire to travel and explore space is primal and as relevant as ever, and it should not be difficult to retain public support for increased funding.

So, as Commander Hadfield returns to Earth, the greatest lesson space agencies around the world may have learned from him is that using social media to take the world into space only works when the world has someone there they want to visit.

But maybe Commander Hadfield is not so worried about program funding or the wannabe-reality throng pitching for Mars. I hear he’s invited William Shatner for a drink when he lands.

Hadfield highlights

Before he grabs that drink with Shatner, here are some of our favourite videos from Commander Hadfield.

Coffee and cake with Chris


Chris’ Kitchen - Hmmmmm dried spinach.


Water recycling on the ISS


Mixed Nuts


Sleeping in space


Can you cry in space?


The wet washcloth in space

Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_