Bowie, Hadfield and Me

I was seven years old in 1969. I don’t remember the moon landing, and I don’t remember David Bowie releasing his song “Space Oddity“. Of course, I’ve known that song all my life, although I didn’t actually learn its proper name until recently. It was just the “Major Tom song”. Like the Beatles, of the same era, it was one of those songs that just existed in the background of my childhood. As a teenager in the 70s and a young adult in the 80s, I didn’t pay much attention to it. But now it has come crashing back into my consciousness like a Soyuz capsule landing in the plains of Kazakhstan.

Winnipeg from ISS

Commander Hadfield’s Picture of Winnipeg

The reason for that, of course, is Chris Hadfield, the Canadian fighter pilot, engineer, astronaut, singer, guitar-player, commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and all-round incredible person from Sarnia, Ontario. If you want to know just how cool Chris Hadfield is, follow this twitter conversation with William Shatner. I knew I was irrevocably in love back then, just like 14 million other people who have watched the following video.


What strikes me the most about this video, aside from the obvious wistfulness with which he is bidding good-bye to his tin can, is how smooth his face is. With no gravity, there are no wrinkles. Somebody commented that after he landed he looked like he’d been thrown against a wall – he is smiling indomitably as he is pulled out of the Soyuz, but his face is a mass of wrinkles. I’m sure many of those will disappear as he recovers, learns to walk again, regains the bone mass he has lost and no longer has dizzy spells because his heart has forgotten how to pump blood to his head. Hadfield has described weightlessness as a superpower – you can fly, move a refrigerator with your fingertips and not care which way is up. If it weren’t for his loved ones here, I’m sure he would be happy to stay up there forever, like Major Tom who is gone “forevermore”.

Still, the question arises in my mind. How long can a human stay in space before it kills them? Hadfield’s physician describes those five months as resulting in “accelerated aging”, but is it the weightlessness itself or the return to gravity? If humans went into space forevermore, would it be OK to have thin bones and hearts that can’t pump against gravity? Would they have to stay in the tin cans forever and not be able to land on anything with gravity? Or would tin cans of the future have to have artificial gravity to counteract this? Would astronauts like Chris Hadfield still be as much in love with space if they lost their superpower?

When Bowie wrote that prophetic song, humans were on their way to the moon – in fact, the song was released at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, although the BBC would not play it until the astronauts had returned to Earth safely. The whole industrialised world was excited about the possibility of space travel. The United States and the USSR competed fiercely, and many smaller countries, including Canada, were keen to get into the game. Space travel was seen as the key to scientific and industrial development, and it did not disappoint – from the freeze-dried food in your backpack to the cordless vacuum in your garage, NASA claims many spin-off products from space research.

Nowadays, of course, things are different. The Space Shuttle Program is no more, and astronauts are dependent on the hospitality of the Russian Soyuz to get them there and back again. While the ISS staff carry out many experiments in the weightless environment, there are many who decry the program as scientifically useless and an unnecessary expense. Its days may well be numbered.

Will Hadfield be able to bring back the romance that pulses through Bowie’s song? Or is that circuit dead forevermore?

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