On Tuesday, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield participated in a question-and-answer session with secondary and middle-school students at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton. The neat part, of course, was that he was on the International Space Station at the time.
Hadfield is on a long-duration stay at the station. Canadians have always played a significant role in space exploration (the Canadian Space Agency collaborated on the Hubble Space Telescope and masterminded the Canadarm and the Canadarm2) but Hadfield has a proud history of Canadian firsts. He was the first Canadian to walk in space, the only Canadian to ever board Mir and, in December 2012, he became the first Canadian to command the space station.
What’s most interesting about Hadfield’s time on the station, however, is how popular his adventures have become — not necessarily in the papers and traditional media, but through social-media channels such as Twitter.
While Hadfield has done his fair share of work with traditional media (he conducted a remote interview last month with the Globe and Mail), the bulk of his social impact comes from the fact that he’s an Internet sensation. His “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit (a popular interactive site) is one of the site’s most popular threads, and his Twitter account has more than 500,000 followers.
One of his most popular Twitter interactions was instigated by Canadian actor and Star Trek celebrity William Shatner, who asked: “Are you tweeting from space?” Hadfield responded: “Yes, standard orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.”
Thanks to the Internet, Hadfield has the entire world at his fingertips, using the same instantaneous live-blogging platform that the rest of us have access to. It makes me think how much the Internet has changed not just space exploration, but everything about our world.
Space exploration used to be a grainy video connection to mission control, but now we’re all a part of the journey. Hadfield shares updates and pictures from space, and his Twitter followers are instantly informed. He’s bringing space home to us in a way that never could have been done before. Few of us will ever become astronauts, but we can all see Hadfield’s pictures. Somehow, that makes his experiences seem more real than looking at the mind-blowing beauty of the Hubble photographs, because we, too, share our pictures on Twitter and Facebook.
Before Hadfield became a Twitter celebrity, I could have named only one person I knew who was excited about space exploration. Ironically, it’s not a priority for our modern world (even NASA is facing long-term budget cuts) so space exploration seems sort of … nostalgic. Not in a proto-futuristic Jetsons sort of way, but as something that I associate with my childhood.
Much like dinosaurs, space is earmarked as something that’s awesome, exciting and pretty much exclusive to the enthusiasm of children. My dad used to take my brother and me to the observatory on West Saanich Road on weekends. It thrilled us in the same way that Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum thrilled us, but as I grew older, I put that enthusiasm aside. It was most definitely “kids’ stuff.”
Now space exploration is cool for adults again, and I think it’s in large part due to the trivializing effect of the Internet. Hadfield is using the same platform as the rest of us; he’s just using it from space. Hadfield is using the same technology as we are; he seems “just like us,” and that’s what makes it so awesome.
The Internet is in space. That’s pretty cool.
Sociologist Lisa Wade recently wrote a fascinating article about the solipsism inherent in the desire to be instantly connected to everyone at all times, to feel as though it’s our right to share our most commonplace ideas and sensations with everyone around us. But the flip side of this increasingly connected world is that we are just as much connected to the amazing and the stellar as to the mundane and the earthly.
If we’re growing more entitled about sharing the boring details of our lives, then we’re also growing more confident about our right to seek, explore and know the universe around us via our technology.
And if more tweets from Chris Hadfield get more kids up to the observatory, that’s a good thing.
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