There was danger, hard graft, and the usual antics of life in orbit, but for millions of onlookers, the latest mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was about the rise of a new star: a moustachioed Canadian with a penchant for guitar.
Chris Hadfield (53), Canada’s first commander of the ISS, landed early Tuesday morning after a five-month mission that raised the former test pilot to celebrity status around the world.
His stint in space marks a shift in the astronaut breed, away from the robotic iciness of NASA’s early crews to the more modern species that openly revels in the wonder of falling round the Earth.
The Soyuz capsule carrying Mr. Hadfield and two crewmates, the U.S. astronaut Thomas Marshburn and the Russian Roman Romanenko, touched down early morning.
Mr. Hadfield rose to fame after embracing social media, from Facebook to Twitter, with a little technical help from Evan (27), his son. He sent missives from space, posted breathtaking photos and sang a duet with the Barenaked Ladies.
But his parting shot from far above the world topped them all. In a video filmed aboard the station, he donned jeans and a T-shirt to cover the Bowie classic, Space Oddity. The rendition, complete with pensive stares, strummed chords and graceful spins of a floating guitar, went viral — Bowie himself retweeted it, quoting his 1995 song Hallo Spaceboy.
According to the Canadian Space Agency, Mr. Hadfield’s YouTube videos have been watched 22 million times. In December, at the start of the mission, he had 20,000 Twitter followers. That is now 850,000 and rising. Gone are the days of the reticent astronaut who spoke with the calm detachment the job seemed to demand.
On Earth, Mr. Hadfield is a member of the all-astronaut band Max-Q, named after the maximum pressure a spacecraft feels as it tears into orbit. While training for the mission, he began work on a song with Ed Robertson from the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies. In February the track ISS (Is Somebody Singing?) became the first song to be performed simultaneously on Earth and in space.
The daily stream of photos from Mr. Hadfield gave a rare insight into life aboard the ISS. On April Fools’ Day he posed with two “space grenades” that turned out to be air sampling devices. He did his best to convince the gullible that an alien spacecraft had docked with the ISS the same day, and that its occupant had boarded.
Amid the frivolity were more serious messages. When an ammonia leak threatened the station’s power supply last week, Mr. Hadfield tweeted details of the plan to fix the problem. As two astronauts embarked on an emergency spacewalk, he noted that they could not whistle, because the air in their suits was held at too low a pressure.
His tweets describing the views from the ISS were a performance for a global audience. California’s wine country was “a favourite place on Earth”; Australia’s Outback “agonisingly beautiful”; the Greek islands were a picture of “delicate, shattered eggshell”. A picture of the moon rising over a bed of cloud was “a constant reminder to us all of what can be achieved”.
Mr. Hadfield was born in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1959. A mechanical engineer by training, he joined the military and graduated top of his class in 1988, from a U.S. air force test pilot school. In 1991, the U.S. navy voted him test pilot of the year.
The Canadian astronaut corps recruited Mr. Hadfield in 1992, from more than 5,000 applicants. He flew aboard the shuttle Atlantis to the Mir space station in 1995, and to the ISS to install Canada’s robotic arm in 2001. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013