Chris Hadfield was orbiting the earth as Commander of Expedition 35, when I wrote about his jamming from space with Barenaked Ladies. On October 7, 2013 he came to Kelowna as the first speaker in the 2013/14 Distinguished Speaker Series hosted by the University of British Columbia Okanagan. The Kelowna Community Theatre was packed, and two other theatres on campus were filled with people who could not get tickets. That is how popular the first Canadian commander of a space mission is.
And it is no wonder. Hadfield is personable, smart, talented and able to talk science in terms ordinary people can understand. His use of social media while he was circling the earth brought the International Space Station to our living rooms and took us into space in a way that had never been possible before. As he orbited the home planet 16 times a day, he photographed Earth and sent out stories via social media. He explained the research the team was carrying out in terms understandable to non-scientists. The space mission was personal to those of us following it, and a new generation of children were inspired by his message they could do anything they set their mind to.
But, of course, Hadfield was not alone on the space station. He was commanding an international crew of two Americans, three Russians and one Canadian. In fact, the whole space program is an extraordinary example of international cooperation. Fifteen countries worked together to supply technology and expertise in support of it. Hadfield showed two maps that brought that home. One was the world in 1942, carved up by the opposing forces in World War II. The second was a map with pins scattered around the globe, each representing a partner in making space travel possible.
So many things, from so many different sources, had to work together perfectly in order for the mission to succeed. Four days before the crew was to return to earth, an ammonia leak nearly aborted the mission and put their lives in danger. Once again, international cooperation allowed the planning and completion of a space walk and repair job that fixed the leak and kept the expedition on schedule, in safety.
When he finished his talk, Hadfield entertained questions, the first from four-year-old Asher, who wanted to know how he breathed in space. He invited Asher to the stage to help him demonstrate. As the child neared cords that could have tripped him, Hadfield reached out to him. “Hold my hand, Asher,” he said. “Life is better if you hold hands.”
That is the kind of guy Hadfield is so his answer to what his next plans were seemed perfect. He said he did not have a bucket list in the way many do. He tries to fill his bucket every day. On the day he spoke he added a cup of coffee, a nap, a visit to a middle school, jamming with students, and the evening’s talk to his day’s bucket. At day’s end, it was full to the brim.
Another question was how the expedition had affected him. He had talked about the thin skin on which we live, between the cold vastness of space and the molten core of our planet. He had shown pictures of the Mount Etna erupting and of the shrinking waters of the Great Lakes. Seeing our planet from space made him more keenly aware of its beauty and of the heinous damage we have done to it. It also made him more determined to do his part to change that.
The talks are part of that, but as he spoke of the future of space travel and of the technology needed to make it possible, he also spoke of the potential of that technology to make changes for the better here on Earth. The Canadarm, for instance, is being used to improve the accuracy and success of delicate surgery. As he said, “We cause problems, but we can also fix problems.”
We can fix them the same way we have sent international teams to a space station built with international collaboration. We can fix them together. Chris Hadfield is one of the people showing us how. He gives me hope.