Through his 21-years as an astronaut and three spaceflights, Colonel Chris Hadfield has become a worldwide sensation, harnessing the power of social media to make outer space accessible to millions and infusing a sense of wonder into our collective consciousness not felt since humanity first walked on the Moon. Colonel Hadfield touched down in Manchester last week, where he spoke to local students during a special BBC Radio 5 live program, revealing how he grew by 4cm and would “float past experiments on my way to the bathroom” aboard the International Space Station:
One of 500 or so people who have been in space, Colonel Hadfield also reminded his audience at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) about the groundwork that goes into exploring the universe.
Life in space is just a small part of the job, he said.
I was an astronaut for 21 years,” Mr Hadfield later told BBC News. “I only flew in space for less than six months. The job of an astronaut is not flying in space – the job of an astronaut is to support space flight and it’s immensely different.
“We invent spaceships, we invent space procedures, we push back the edges of the envelope of how we understand space flight.
“I trained for four-and-a-half years for my second space flight and for my third space flight. In between, I supported other astronauts that were flying in space and their families, and I worked to help recover the space programme after the Columbia accident [when all seven astronauts on the shuttle were killed in 2003].”
He also helped change procedures for flying the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that ferries astronauts to the ISS.
“It’s not like you sit around and wait, and then you fly in space and then everything else is some limbo or something. It’s the job on Earth that matters […] that’s where the meat of it is.”
The former ISS commander retired last year at the age of 53. His last space trip was in 2012-13 when his photos and videos, including a zero-gravity version of Space Oddity, captivated many on planet Earth, reminding its inhabitants of the wonders of both home and the universe.
His Manchester stopover was part of a tour to promote his new photography book You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes – the profits of which will go to charity.
Mr Hadfield sees it as an “extremely important” part of an astronaut’s role to “let people know what you’re up to – it’s not just purely the technical side but it’s also the vanguard, the inspirational side of what we are doing”.
MOSI organisers, recently granted a £3m investment by the government, hoped the former astronaut’s visit would excite students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and maths – often collectively known as STEM.
There has long been concern that many young people are shunning these subjects, with one recent survey reporting that some consider them intimidating or boring.
In its 2014 Education and Skills Survey, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) highlighted “an urgent need to improve the supply of STEM-skilled people if economic growth is not to be held back”.
“I think that was a big concern of the ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago,” said Mr Hadfield. “It’s always been a concern. The young don’t take education serious enough. We’re not giving them the grounding in the 3Rs or STEM or whatever our current acronym is – that’s normal, we always feel that way.
“Yet somehow we continue to advance civilisation – incredible new discoveries and advances that are going on right now. We live in perpetually improving standards of living so I tend to downplay a little bit the transient concern as if this is the first time this has ever happened. It’s a perpetual battle to make sure our young are educated as well as possible.
“It’s more that we need to fire the central flame of curiosity,” he added.
There has also been concern about a lack of girls taking up STEM careers, with fewer female university applicants holding science A-Levels compared to their male counterparts, especially in physics, according to figures from university admission body UCAS.
Among the students attending the MOSI event was Chloe from Ellesmere Park High School who had visited the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a holiday in the United States.
“I don’t like chemistry because it’s confusing with all the elements and reactants. I don’t understand how people get it. But I do find space interesting – that there might be other people out there that we don’t know.”
Mr Hadfield highlighted that some of the highest leadership roles in space exploration were held by women, including former ISS commander Suni Williams and Janet Kavandi, director of flight crew operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“Obviously the opportunities and education both exist and we need to continue to promote them for everyone,” he added.
The Canadian was himself enlightened during the BBC Radio 5 live broadcast at MOSI, when he struggled for the correct demonym for the people of Manchester.
“Mancunian? That sounds like an alien to me.”