This article originally appeared in Chicago’s ‘Irish American News’ for June 1, 2013
Beam Me Up:
Chris Hadfield Makes Children of Us Once More
‘It’s nice to be against things; but sometimes we have to be for things also.’
–from the brilliant film, ‘The Libertine’ with Johnny Depp and John Malkovich
How very pleasant indeed to wake up yesterday, May 14th, to some good news for a change. Commander Chris Hadfield was returning to Earth after five months in charge of the International Space Station. During that time he has gathered around 850,000 Twitter followers and has, seemingly very casually, made our tentative baby steps into space engrossing for the average person—who possibly was even unaware that we actually HAD a space station at all until the commander began to send those astonishing images of his.
Chris Hadfield has made many of us feel like children again. I know that when I sat down to watch him performing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on Monday morning I had what must have been a big dopey grin of happiness on my face and—yes, it’s true—just the faintest sheen of tears in my eyes. Just for a few moments my father was alive again, I was eleven years old and the Bowie album of the previous year—1969– was waiting for me under the Christmas tree. And on that previous magical year there had been the most extraordinary event of all. On the street where I lived all of the television sets were on as a man took his first footsteps onto the white disc that we have stared in awe at ever since we oozed our way out of the primordial swamp. I recall to this day one of the neighbours, Mr. Beattie, saying: “Well, we did it.” And that’s exactly how it felt. It was as if every single one of us had a hand in getting there.
I suppose it was a long time later before I first heard the term ‘global village’, but on that long-gone day I suppose that even at such a young age I could have explained the rough concept of it.
It was one of those moments and instilled one of those feelings that I at least just never quite got over. In fact I have little doubt that it led directly to my life-long love of science-fiction.
Three years later, and four years after its initial release, a dream came true when I finally sat down to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. For the first time I real felt some kind of spirituality. I use that for want of a better word. It’s not quite correct but it’s the best that I can do. It brought this feeling that there was just something out there—not necessarily a God, it didn’t hit me like that at all—but something that was so much bigger than us. And I would hate to work out how often I have seen that film since. And it is new every time.
Again, because of the often poetic Tweets that accompany Chris Hadfield’s astonishing images, we find our sense of wonder and awe returning to us, and that’s something that life may have blunted over the years. In fact on that very subject he responded with this moving comment when asked to give advice to children about how to make their futures:
“Look at what you want to be and start sculpting yourself into that person.
“Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become.”
That seems to me as good a piece of advice as any you could give to a kid.
His images of the Sahara desert are extraordinary: where you may have had a vague concept of it being an empty waste, it is instead revealed from space to be glowing with colour. As to the Bahamas, he said that it was the most beautiful country, “with vast glowing reefs of every shade of blue that exists.”
And his images of Ireland are to treasured. A week ago as I write this we were privileged to see in a ‘God’s eye- view’ the majesty of a storm covering the coast. And as he passed over Dublin, where his daughter Kristen is studying at Trinity College, he caught our imagination again by sending:
“Ta Eire fioralainn! Land of green hills and dark beer. With Dublin glowing in the Irish night.”
And of course he delighted everyone—even a St. Patrick’s Day grump like me—by tweeting on March 17th:
“Wearing the green—Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the International Space Station!”
Somehow Hadfield can pull this kind of thing off without looking in the least bit corny; but then if he can pull of wearing a moustache you would have to ask if there is anything the guy can’t do. I don’t think that I’ve seen a hairy face outside of Gerry Adams in years!
Passing over Belfast he asked:
“Belfast, at the mouth of the River Lagan. Strangely, not the river the city was named after. Who can tell me why?”
Do you know something? We have a long and embarrassing history of making a holy show of ourselves in tripping over each other in order to claim everyone from Mohammed Ali to Barack Obama as one of our own. Well, Commander Hadfield may be a Canadian but I wouldn’t groan if he was given some sort of honorary title. If you deserve to be rewarded for making people feel good about themselves again, even for a minute, then this guy deserves it.
And even for someone like myself who has always been interested in this kind of thing, there were little snippets of information that made you sit back. On why the astronauts don’t wash their clothes:
“It’s too water-intensive. We wear our clothes until dirty and then just throw them away.” Who knew that?
Amusingly old Captain Kirk, William Shatner himself, sent him a message last January: “Are you tweeting from space?” To which Commander Hadfield replied:
“@WilliamShatner. Yes, Standard Orbit Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.”
I wonder how many of us looked up at the sky last night because of him, with a feeling of reawakened wonder and awe at the vast universe and the beauty that surrounds us.
Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that NASA, which was supposed to dominate the seventies, was instead dominated BY them. There are many theories as to why the public lost interest in our work in space, but one thing is for sure: Commander Chris Hadfield has restored that interest. At least, for a while.
As for me, I’m off to see ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ this evening. I would have been going in any case. The expectation is just that bit sharper now. Thank you, Chris Hadfield