Thanks, Commander Hadfield

The Canadian Space Agency has itself a bona fide celebrity now, on par with the men who played a critical role in NASA’s moon landing: Commander Hadfield, who returned to Earth from the International Space Station three months ago, has become a household name around the world. And I suspect his career is destined to go in all sorts of exciting directions, and that we’ll be seeing a lot more of him, because he’s done something pretty amazing not just as a scientist and astronaut, but also as an ambassador for space.

Chris Hadfield got people really, really excited about space. During his time on the Space Station, he recorded videos, answered questions from the public, Tweeted amazing photos of the Earth with fantastic commentary, and even found time to record the first music video shot in space before coming back to Earth. All of those acts created a lot of buzz around the ISS, which people generally think of as a pile of junk whizzing through space, eating up government resources and making itself into a massive nuisance. He also got people excited about research in space again, about the possibilities beyond our atmosphere.

We’ve always been intrigued by space, obviously, and that’s not going away, but people seem to be grappling with the massive funds required in an era when economic austerity is such a huge part of the landscape. People are also struggling with science itself; scientific literacy is a growing problem, with many people not understanding the need for research or not interested in learning about scientific advances and what we’re doing collectively as a society to understand the world around us.

That’s what makes people like Commander Hadfield so important, because they bridge a critical gap. Many scientists are really bad at communicating with the public about what they do, why it’s important, and how they do it. They don’t communicate results well and they don’t get people enthused about the kind of work they do, and unlike Hadfield, they don’t take advantage of the mystique of science and use it as an educational tool. Lots of people are intrigued by the idea of scientific laboratories, for example, and a savvy researcher could use that to generate public awareness about a project or the need to funding.

You don’t need to shoot an incredibly dry video droning about what you do in a research lab. You can answer questions like Hadfield did that at first might seem only tangentially related to your actual mission, but along the way provide information about science and the way the world works. For example, in one of his videos, he demonstrates what happens when you wring water out of a washcloth on the space station. The video provides a great chance to understand surface tension and learn about how astronauts deal with day-to-day errata, but it also raised all kinds of intriguing questions and opened up new avenues for exploration, while also being simply entertaining.

How do you clean up a spill? How does surface tension work, exactly? What kind of mishaps in space have provided lessons the hard way, and which of those led to better technologies and understandings of things we use on Earth? None of these things actually provide us with information about the work Hadfield did on the space station, but they do pique your interest in science and make you want to know more. They spark the inquisitive part of the mind that quests for information and seeks explanations for the world around us. They get viewers connected with science and thinking about things in new ways.

Commander Hadfield showed us what an amazing place the Earth was from above with his series of fantastic images, which often served to highlight the fragility of the planet more than anything else. Whether he was photographing stunning landscapes, or dust storms, or urban areas, these places suddenly looked small and frail, even as we think of them as so important, looming so large in our lives. Those images gave us more reasons to care about the Earth.

And his videos reaching out to the public showed people the important role that science can play in making the world safer and healthier for all the living organisms on it. Hadfield accomplished what PR agencies and spokespeople can only dream of: he made science and space and the agencies that backed his work accessible to the public, he encouraged people to ask questions, he revived the mystique of space and unveiled some of the mysteries, the things we wonder about but are sometimes afraid to ask. Hadfield took the approach that there are no foolish questions, only condescending answers to genuine curiousity, and he used his position to reach people all over the world.

The desire to grow up and become an astronaut looms just as large in the minds of many children today as it did around the time of the moon landing, and Hadfield reminded those kids that there are still great and fascinating things happening in space. And that kids interested in pursuing that goal, or adults who want careers in space, have lots of options available to them when it comes to following their dreams. Not only that, but he made those dreams larger than life again, communicating the excitement and delight of science through his often childlike delight in his videos, his awe of space, his reminders that even as a seasoned professional commanding a very expensive and complex piece of equipment, he never ceased to be amazed by, and in love with, his job.

Commander Hadfield’s legacy is one that I suspect will live on, especially since his career is far from over. He might be back on ground now, but where else is he going to take science in the coming years, and how many people in the next generation of astronauts and scientists in general will be crediting Hadfield as their inspiration?