How to Go Viral From Space

Orbital YouTubing made Chris Hadfield an Internet sensation — and got millions of people hooked on science.

National Journal
Alex Brown
April 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

Chris Had­field knows all about space­walk­ing, pi­lot­ing a fight­er jet, and liv­ing on the ocean floor. The mus­ta­chioed Ca­na­dian might also be the In­ter­net’s most un­likely mu­sic-video su­per­star.

But of course, when you can film your per­form­ance in zero grav­ity, why wouldn’t you ex­pect to get 22 mil­lion hits?

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4897) }}

But Had­field’s world-fam­ous rendi­tion of “Space Oddity” isn’t his proudest achieve­ment. For him, it’s the fact that mil­lions of people who have watched his You­Tube videos have be­come in­ter­ested in sci­ence and space. Most grat­i­fy­ing, he says, is “see­ing people change their mind and do something more chal­len­ging and pro­duct­ive with their life as a res­ult of see­ing me as an ex­ample.”

Over a 21-year space­flight ca­reer, Had­field, 54, be­came the first Ca­na­dian to space­walk, as well as the first to use the ro­bot­ic Cana­darm. He also spent time on an un­der­sea mis­sion help­ing NASA sim­u­late space ex­ped­i­tions.

Dur­ing that time, he’s had plenty of op­por­tun­it­ies to help oth­ers learn about life in or­bit, wheth­er speak­ing to school groups or film­ing edu­ca­tion­al videos. “I used the best tech­no­logy that was avail­able each time to try and share the ex­per­i­ence with every­body,” he said.

On his fi­nal mis­sion, from late 2012 to early 2013, he used the power of You­Tube to reach the masses as nev­er be­fore. In five months aboard the space sta­tion, Had­field filmed nearly 100 videos, demon­strat­ing everything from shav­ing to ex­er­cising to sleep­ing to cry­ing in space.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of people (some­times mil­lions) saw each video, and Had­field said the re­sponse has been over­whelm­ing. “Con­stantly, every single day, I get emails,” he said. “People stop me on the street.”

Among the many who have felt the im­pact of Had­field’s ca­reer is cur­rent Ca­na­dian as­tro­naut Jeremy Hansen, who first met his pre­de­cessor when he was still a stu­dent. “He made those de­cisions [to be­come an as­tro­naut] be­cause he was in­spired by the space pro­gram and the work I was do­ing,” Had­field said.

It’s a jour­ney in­spired in much the same way as Had­field’s own. Had­field cred­its Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Ald­rin for in­spir­ing his own ca­reer. “I chose to do what I’ve done with my life be­cause of those ini­tial NASA as­tro­nauts,” he said. “They were the first real­ity TV. It was the ul­ti­mate real­ity TV.” And while his You­Tube videos might come in a dif­fer­ent format than their live moon­walk, Had­field sees a com­mon thread: “clear com­mu­nic­a­tion of a new ex­per­i­ence.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4898) }}

For Had­field, that com­mu­nic­a­tion helped people get a glimpse of “every­day” life in space — far from every­day for folks on the ground. Even simple tasks, he said, can get tricky in weight­less­ness. “It’s al­most al­ways the op­pos­ite,” he said. “Something that’s easy on Earth is hard in space, and vice versa.”

Per­haps most dif­fi­cult? Put­ting on a pair of shoes. Without the be­ne­fit of grav­ity, Had­field found it tricky to man­euver his feet and pull on a shoe. “By the time you get one shoe on, the oth­er’s dis­ap­peared,” he said.

Of course, even more dif­fi­cult was the time spent away from his wife and three chil­dren. But float­ing above the Earth isn’t the lone­li­est part of be­ing an as­tro­naut. The years of train­ing for each mis­sion, dur­ing which Had­field was away from home two-thirds of the time, made for more ir­reg­u­lar com­mu­nic­a­tion than his time in space. “Be­ing in space was pretty re­li­able,” he joked. “People knew where I was.”

Had­field, who grew up in south­ern Ontario, re­turned to Canada after re­tir­ing in 2013. But he’s still keep­ing a close eye on or­bit­al de­vel­op­ments. Much has been made of the ten­sion between the U.S. and Rus­sia (es­pe­cially NASA’s par­tial cut-off of com­mu­nic­a­tion with Mo­scow), but Had­field doesn’t think the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion part­ner­ship is in any danger.

“I think more than ever you need an ex­ample like the space sta­tion,” he said. “Any kid in the Ukraine or any kid in Rus­sia or any kid in the U.S. can walk out in the morn­ing or at dusk and see the sta­tion in the sky. It is a vis­ible ex­ample of how we can ac­com­plish stuff when we find ways to work to­geth­er.”

He says he’s proud of his own work in set­ting that ex­ample. “Throughout my as­tro­naut ca­reer, that was one of my ob­ject­ives. How do I share this ex­per­i­ence?” he said. “Between the sci­ence videos, edu­ca­tion videos, and the mu­sic videos, there have been mil­lions of people who un­der­stand the space sta­tion dif­fer­ently.”

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