The manned space program was once like Green Bay Packers tickets — the thing just sold itself. You’ve got the spacemen, we’ve got the eyeballs. Workplaces came to a stop, and TVs were rolled into classrooms, not just for an Al Shepard or a John Glenn but also for Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon going up aboard Gemini 11. Know about that one? Of course you don’t. But everyone did back then.
Things are a little different now. Quick: How many people are currently aboard the International Space Station? Anybody? How many people even knew there was an International Space Station? Well, there is one. It’s an awfully cool machine, and thanks to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, a lot more people now know just how cool. On May 13, Hadfield thumped down in Kazakhstan after a five-month stint aboard the ISS, having made a contribution to the space program that went well beyond the experiments he oversaw in orbit and the simple business of helping to keep the whole football-field-size vehicle flying. Before turning over the conn, he recorded his now viral onboard performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which totaled 6.6 million views in the first 24 hours after he posted it on his dedicated channel, helped earn Hadfield nearly 1 million Twitter followers and won the most important thumbs-up of all, from Bowie himself: “It’s possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created,” applauded the original Major Tom on his Facebook page.
Hadfield had been up to much of the same brilliantly creative stuff throughout his time in space, performing this live duet with Barenaked Ladies band member Ed Robertson and this irresistible demonstration of what happens when you wring out a wet washcloth in a zero-G environment as well as posting no shortage of stunning images of the earth from space. In the process, he and the Canadian Space Agency, which produced the video, also gave the American space program — and every other branch of any government — a good lesson in how to sell the work you’re doing to a public that’s too often completely uninterested in it.
One of the things that made the original space program such a self-marketer was that it was a series of firsts — first person in space, first spacewalk, first rendezvous, first docking, first lunar orbit. This, of course, was all pointing clearly and rationally to one goal: the first lunar landing — which would have been impossible without initially checking all of the other boxes. The thrill would inevitably fade a bit after the Apollo 11 landing, but nobody expected it to fade to black — which it effectively has.
Part of the problem has been the sales pitch. The Apollo program was followed by Skylab — the first American space station — and NASA chose the dreariest possible metaphor to describe it: no longer were we embarking on voyages of discovery like Magellan’s or Columbus’, this time we were going to establish a little colony — like Jamestown! O.K., apart from the fact that the Jamestown settlers ate their dead, much of the rest of what they did was the simple business of staying alive: planting crops, dodging bears, trying to get through the winter without freezing to death. It does not detract from the Skylab crews to say that a lot of the time they spent in space was devoted to simple proof-of-concept stuff like that. There’s heroism in such work, sure. But excitement? Not exactly.
The shuttle program was even more of a promotional stinker. This time the sales metaphor for the new spacecraft was, simply: a truck. America would now be able to make milk runs to and from low-earth orbit, delivering satellites and doing repair work on them when necessary. Why, the thing would be so reliable, we could even pop off flights every few weeks or so, slashing the cost-per-pound of payload dramatically. Not surprisingly, this UPS-on-a-budget campaign did not attract much interest, and after the first two or three shuttles flew, America tuned out entirely. That had consequences comic, poignant and tragic.
In the hope of making the program more kid-friendly, NASA launched an aggressive p.r. campaign touting its outreach to schools and classrooms, some of which was not half bad. Student-recommended experiments flew on the shuttle, for example, which was no small thing. But on more than one occasion, a crew would be asked to do less dignified work, like carrying aloft a cardboard Flat Stanley — a spacefaring version of a famous children’s-book character, named Stanley, whose defining feature is that he’s, well, flat. The astronauts gamely performed this ignominious little chore, but not without a fair bit of grumbling about just how wisely their time and efforts were being used.
John Glenn’s return to space in 1998, a full 36 years after he became the first American to orbit the earth, was extraordinary — both elegiac and well earned, since a man who loved to fly had been firmly but unofficially grounded by NASA after he returned to earth in 1962, so as not to risk the neck of national icon. But no matter the protestations from NASA when the then 77-year-old Glenn went back to space that this was really a science mission, to investigate the effects of weightlessness on the body since they are so similar to the effects of aging, the flight was always seen as much more of a p.r. grab.
It was the loss of life, of course, that ultimately made the shuttle program the tragedy it was — and one life in particular. While 13 of the 14 crew members who died aboard the final missions of Columbia and Challenger were professional astronauts whose very careers were defined by a willingness to take risks, the 14th was Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who was chosen to help prove that the shuttle was so reliable that even civilians could safely fly — a nice claim except that it wasn’t and they couldn’t.
NASA hasn’t even tried to get much public-relations mileage out of the current space station, though it’s a breathtaking if not terribly useful machine. Over the past nine years, the rest of the manned space program has drifted from a return to the moon and a trip to Mars, to a return to the moon alone, to a visit to an asteroid or a gravity-neutral Lagrange point, to the latest head scratcher: capturing an asteroid and towing it to the vicinity of the moon so we can visit it. It all feels like throwing darts at a board, with the next spot hit becoming the next never-to-be-reached destination. And that brings us back to Hadfield and why he inspired so.
What Hadfield did — what any smart advertiser does — was sweep away any ancillary clutter and get straight to the point he wanted to make. At its emotional center, space isn’t about student outreach or commercial potential or industrial spinoffs — though every one of those things is important and valuable. It’s about transcendence, it’s about experience, it’s about going to a place where otherworldly is a literal term, where you see things that are otherwise utterly impossible to see, where the simple rules of physics don’t even apply the same way. That place is both excruciatingly close — just beyond an onionskin of atmosphere — and unreachably distant. All of Hadfield’s videos capture that idea in one way or another, but the last one, which combines the alien nature of the place he was living at the time with the deeply personal power of a song that has private associations for anyone who’s familiar with it, was a masterstroke. It mainlined meaning directly into our emotional centers. Whether you care about space or not, once you watch Hadfield’s video, you’re very glad that humanity as a whole — and Hadfield in particular — can go there.
Certainly, NASA has a potential public appeal that other government agencies can’t match. An Interior Department rock video? An IRS fan following? Not going to happen. But Interior has assets — national parks for one thing — and getting people to care about them and treasure them can be done with a kind of appeal that goes beyond the usual purple-mountains’-majesty treacle. The IRS may be loathed, but some attempt at online irony or self-effacing wit could at least buy it a bit of forgiveness. Good government and a well-informed public should not require selling ideas the way you sell video games or phone subscriptions — but they do, and the sooner policymakers accept that, the sooner they’ll engage us all more.
It’s too cynical to say that Hadfield’s video was all about salesmanship. It wasn’t. But it’s naive to think that he and NASA and the Canadian space program didn’t know that anything so real, moving and just plain fun couldn’t help but boost their cause at least a little. So kudos to Hadfield for being so brilliant — and kudos to the bureaucrats for not getting in the way.