GWEN IFILL: Talk to people who work in the space business, and you will often hear worry that the public is losing interest in the space program.
But, earlier this year, a Canadian astronaut helped change that, at least for a while, by taking advantage of the digital age to provide a unique look at what life is like in orbit.
NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has a conversation with Chris Hadfield from our New York studio.
NEIL ARMSTRONG, NASA astronaut: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
MILES O’BRIEN: There was a time when astronauts were global superstars, household names. Those days may be gone, but one recently retired spacefarer has managed to cut through the clutter and make an extraordinary connection between life on and off the planet.
His out-of-the-world-cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” went viral faster than a speeding space station.
MAN: Do you have your trusty floating guitar pick with you?
MILES O’BRIEN: Before he released the video, he had set himself apart by performing far-flung accompaniment to artist likes Neil Young and Barenaked Ladies. And he made videos that offered some fascinating slices of life in the world of micro-gravity, where even the mundane is worth exploring.
How do you trim your fingernails? Hadfield has a video how-to.
COL. CHRIS HADFIELD, retired Canadian astronaut: That one got away.
MILES O’BRIEN: He is a star on Twitter, with about a million followers, and generally goes out of his way to share the experience of leaving the planet.
His latest effort is a memoir entitled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.
Colonel Chris Hadfield, welcome.
CHRIS HADFIELD: Thanks very much, Miles.
MILES O’BRIEN: Not every astronaut makes it a priority to share the experience with the public. You have. Why?
CHRIS HADFIELD: I have since the beginning.
I flew in space three times. And I was a kid growing up who would have loved the opportunity to meet an astronaut or to get some more insight. I wrote to NASA for them to mail me stuff. And I watched what the Apollo astronauts did, and it kind of set really strongly in me that, if I ever get an opportunity to do something like this, I’m going to do everything I can to share it with people.
This last time, having Internet connectivity, have wide bandwidth where we could send video down and where I could take a picture and within minutes tweet it to a million people, it just finally allowed me to really share the experience with as many people who wanted to come on board.
MILES O’BRIEN: Well, how much of this was serendipity and how much of this was planned? It looks in retrospect like a pretty concerted effort to build a following for space and you, too.
CHRIS HADFIELD: The Canadian Space Agency recognized that this was going to be a great chance to show people what it is like to live in space, so a couple of years before flight, they gave me a video camera and they said, hey, as you’re going through training, just make little videos and we will learn together how to turn out little YouTube clips.
And when I got to orbit, I sort of had the idea that I would do it, but we didn’t really have a big plan. And then one day, I opened up a can of peanuts. And I just peeled that back that little — that little sort of foil lid, and it looked like it was like full of cockroaches.
I slammed it shut again going, yee. I looked again, and it’s just because the peanuts were all bouncing around inside. And Tom Marshburn and I were going, hey, that’s cool.
And I thought, if that looks cool to us, this will look cool to everybody. And so I just grabbed an iPad, did a little film of it, sent it to the ground. The CSA put it up, and millions of people looked at it. And so it kind of built from that. We had built a little bit of plan, but it was very snowballish and it just kind of grew on itself, and the results were huge.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, what’s the lesson of the peanuts and the fingernails?
MILES O’BRIEN: Is it — is it that there’s no amount of minutia that is too small when it comes to being in space or that people are focused on stuff that really isn’t that important in the grand scheme?
CHRIS HADFIELD: People want to know what it’s like in space.
You and I have talked about space for a long time. I have gone to thousands of places to go talk about spaceflight. And people always want to know, what is it like? How do you go to the bathroom? What happens when you sneeze? What happens if? What happens if? How do you use everything? How do you use a toilet? How to you make lunch?
And so they’re asking the up-front curiosity question. But the real motivation is, how does that matter? And that’s what I tried to do the whole time up there, was to show them, hey, this is cool, this is fun, but, meanwhile, you’re coming on board a space station that will show you that if I float a ball of water with pepper oil in it, think about what you could do with that experiment.
Think about what this environment could allow you to do, everything from taking photographs of the Earth to maybe recording a rock video.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, aside from the amazing pictures of floating peanuts, fingernails, and an amazing cover of David Bowie’s music…
MILES O’BRIEN: … give us a justification for this space station, $100 billion spent.
CHRIS HADFIELD: Sure.
MILES O’BRIEN: Do you feel like this is — the taxpayers should feel good about this?
CHRIS HADFIELD: Oh, yes, absolutely.
I mean, if you pull a number out of the air, like $100 billion spent, you have to put it in context, right? What else over that length of time, over the 20-plus years we have been working on space station, what are all the other things we have spent money on? Otherwise, you know, it’s a number that just becomes sort of an out-of-reference thing.
But let’s just talk about space station. Countries that were enemies within living memory, Germany, and Japan, and Russia, and the U.S., and Canada, and all across Europe, doing something that rises above the day-to-day squabbles of life, giving ourselves sort of a common enemy of complexity and cost, and it’s really the only way a space station like that could get built.
It has to be international, because it’s such a long-term thing. And so it serves a great function as a symbol of what can happen when you do things right. It’s also a laboratory, and a laboratory like none we have ever built.
There are, like, 200 experiments running up there, everything from a device that we invented that can do blood analysis in 10 minutes in a thing the size of a shoe box or a toaster, right through to looking at nanoparticles and how they behave in magnetic fields, so we can use them for shock absorbers and holding up buildings in earthquakes, to the alpha magnetic spectrometer, which is like a Nobel Prize-level thing that is trying to understand what the whole universe is made of.
We don’t know what 95 percent of the universe is even made of, and we can figure that out, hopefully, using the space station. So it is both a great source of invention and research, but also an unbeatable point of inspiration for the planet.
MILES O’BRIEN: Final question. You’re now on the sidelines, retired, after an illustrious career in space.
CHRIS HADFIELD: Yes.
MILES O’BRIEN: And you have had a little bit of time to think, I think, about where we have been and where we’re going. When I say we, I mean that collectively.
Where should we be going in space?
CHRIS HADFIELD: You know, when I’m trying to predict the future, I try to look at the past and look for examples.
And the way we have always done it is, we kind of send out a probe to see what might be there, get a feel for what’s possible, see if it will sustain us, and then we start moving there. It’s natural. It’s what we have done in space so far.
We sent out the earliest to see if we could even sustain suborbital, then orbital. And then we started the building Skylab. And then we built space station, and we have now moved to Earth in low-Earth orbit.
And, to me, the obvious next step — the beauty of a space station is we can bail out and be home in a couple of hours. The obvious next step, I think, is the moon. It’s three days away. We have so much we need to invent before we go further out into the solar system. How do you generate power? How do you navigate? How do you do all those things?
And the moon, if things all go to hell in a handbasket, we can get in and be home in three days. So, to me, the obvious next choice, beyond the space station, would be go to the moon, and, once we learn everything there, then go further.
MILES O’BRIEN: And to those who say, been there, done that, what do you say?
CHRIS HADFIELD: Been there, done that?
That would indicate that the reason we went to the moon was purely for entertainment. And that’s not why we explore. That’s not how we have ever settled anywhere. That would have been like, I don’t know, Leif the Lucky or Columbus going across the Atlantic to saying, wow, there is a whole continent here, but there’s no reason to ever come back because I have already been here once.
That’s just — that’s not human nature. It’s not our pattern, and it won’t be our pattern in space.
MILES O’BRIEN: Colonel Chris Hadfield, thank you very much.
CHRIS HADFIELD: Thanks, Miles.