Only a tiny few of us will ever get a chance to go into orbit, to float weightless while marvelling at the sights below as the Earth’s surface flashes past at 28,000km per hour.
Many of us, however, are achieving some limited idea of what it must be like thanks to a Canadian astronaut who has brought the excitement and adventure of space flight home via social media.
Cmdr Chris Hadfield lifted off in a Soyuz spacecraft last December to begin a six-month stint on board the International Space Station. He went into orbit unknown to most of us, but has since become an online sensation.
These few exchanges turned a test pilot and experienced astronaut into an overnight celebrity, as the Twitter and Facebook-using public flocked to Hadfield to see what he might say next.
And Hadfield had plenty to say, dispatching more than 4,000 tweets to more than 580,000 followers in the intervening months, with daily tweets describing what life is like and what he can see on Earth through the station’s portholes.
Much of what runs over Twitter is tripe, pointless comment made over the minutia of life, but Hadfield is able to transcend this, turning the ordinary into insight.
He also knows how to play an audience. His daughter studies at Trinity College Dublin so he has a focus on Ireland, but he delighted people here by speaking the first words of Irish from an orbiting spacecraft, donning the green on St Patrick’s Day, and singing Danny Boy .
Now people all around the world know who he is as they wait for his next tweet, and he has a talent for keeping them engaged. Yet he has another talent, one that will ensure his time in space will deliver a lasting legacy.
He has a remarkable eye as a photographer, capturing features of the Earth’s surface as he orbits overhead. Often the pictures are taken to delight the crowd below, hence a nighttime picture of Dublin taken on March 17th. But more of them are just really good photographs, striking images of features that can only be seen properly from 350km above.
Many tend towards the abstract , displaying unusual structure or a lack of it. These photographs will ensure the name Chris Hadfield will remain known long after he returns to Earth.
EYE IN THE SKY: THE PHOTO EDITOR’S VERDICT
The first rule of photojournalism is being there, but being a good photographer also requires an “eye”, a feeling for a moment, a mood, a pattern. Luckily for those of us who are earthbound, Cmdr Chris Hadfield on board the International Space Station is doubly skilled.
From his vantage point orbiting the Earth, he daily posts absolutely charming images of the planet below on Facebook and Twitter. His keen eye picks out fascinating details and patterns and, as a bonus, he adds warm and witty comment.
Two dots in a vast Saudi desert, presumably irrigation tanks, draw the comment that he hopes the farmers are good neighbours; artificial islands in Dubai draw a wry remark; a Caymen island, which for those of us earthbound makes us think of questionable banking practices, is from above a little bit of paradise.
The geological patterns he captures are especially fascinating: the Earth’s fault lines in, say, South Africa; Finger Lakes in New York state; Mount Etna in the snow pumping out smoke; The Richat Structure in the Sahara; the raggy outline of the Donegal coast.
Water, too, seen from such a distance, is abstracted, a Pacific swirl off Mexico, a frozen gyre in Newfoundland, the Nile and Sinai sweeping off the edge of the globe. There is much to enjoy here. Taxpayers of the world subscribe; here is some delightful payback from the edge of space.
All images and captions are by Cmdr Chris Hadfield