Chris Hadfield is many things: a highly trained engineer, pilot and experienced astronaut. But, as we all know, it was his ability to convey the wonders of life in space and the glory of our home planet from the International Space Station (ISS) which captured the world’s imagination. His tweets and videos, especially his cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity - 20 million views and counting on YouTube – underlined his artistic qualities. It is what made this astronaut stand out from the rest.
When I met him last month as part of his book tour, we talked about many things from his sudden rise in popularity to space toilets (more about that later). But one of my main questions was that if one of the roles of human space exploration is to inspire, to educate, to push at the boundaries of knowledge and convey the fragility of the Earth or our place in the Universe, then what would we learn if we sent a professional artist or musician into space? Instead of Hadfield singing Space Oddity, what if we had sent David Bowie to the space station? What would he have come up with?
The idea of sending artists to unique, isolated and challenging environments usually occupied by scientists, engineers and explorers is not a new one. Antarctic research organisations have taken artists, composers and writers with them on expeditions. In 2009, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) hosted artist Christopher Dobrowolski at the organisation’s Rothera research station. “One of the references I make quite often is the comparison between going to Antarctica and going to outer space,” says Dobrowolski.
“When you go to somewhere so elusive and remote, it has a way of authenticating ordinary objects,” he explains. A ship’s biscuit that went to Antarctica with Captain Scott, for example, has far greater value than an ordinary 1911 ship’s biscuit. Much the same applies to space. Souvenirs from the Apollo missions can fetch many thousands - even millions - of dollars.
“My proposal was to take pretend Antarctic things – plastic penguins, plastic animals, a toy sledge, things like that – photograph them there and bring them back, so suddenly this pretend Antarctic thing is a real pretend Antarctic thing.”
The project spawned a popular exhibition and Dobrowolski spends much of his time relating and sharing his Antarctic experiences in lectures and presentations. However, while he made an effort to talk to the scientists he was working alongside about his art and the thinking behind it, he admits this wasn’t to everyone’s liking. The artist’s efforts to photograph a rubber whale, while playing music on a record player, on a pitching deck, drew comments from a ship’s crewman that are not suitable for publication.
That said, artists are skilled at conveying a sense of the place – an impression, an emotional connection, a sense of wonder – in a way that scientists often cannot.
‘Wonderful, artistic interpretations’
An artist, writer or musician is able to reach audiences beyond those who follow the latest scientific news or research developments. Ultimately, scientists benefit from the publicity the art projects generate, which raises the profile of their research and helps to secure future funding. And given that we pay for a considerable amount of scientific research through our taxes, scientists should communicate with as many people as possible.
The same argument applies in space. Astronauts are always being asked “what’s it like?” and many struggle to convey the grandeur. Listen to the recordings of the Apollo Moonwalkers and, with the exception of Buzz Aldrin’s description of the lunar landscape as one of “magnificent desolation,” most of them plump for a variation on “rocky and grey”.
So if Hadfield is one of those rare astronauts who can also be classed as an artist, would he like to see an artist sent into space? “Completely,” he tells me. “We need to fly the artists of the world, the Elton Johns of the world who decade after decade can write wonderful, artistic interpretations of life that help us appreciate it better.”
However, Hadfield warns, space travel to the ISS currently requires too many skills and is too dangerous for non-astronauts. For instance, while going through the painstaking task of coordinating cosmonauts on their spacewalk (in Russian), he also had to fix a broken toilet in the American segment (in English).
“I was elbows deep in the innards of a fairly complex non-gravity driven, non-water driven toilet,” he says. “And then the Russians would call and I’d wipe myself down and then go whipping down to the other end of the station and do the next step of the spacewalk, and then back to the toilet and back and forth.”
The whole process took three hours. “At the end of three hours, the guys were safely outside and I threw the switch on the wall and the toilet started up,” says Hadfield, impersonating the high-pitched whirring sound the ISS toilet apparently makes. “Of all days, after six months orbiting the world, that was my space highlight!”
Fixing a space toilet will not win you 20 million hits on YouTube – unless perhaps it goes catastrophically wrong – but it shows the ability to multi-task and skills needed by those living in the station. Hadfield himself hopes artists will be able to travel into space in the near-future. “Right now it’s really hard,” he says. “But, through what Richard Branson is doing [with Virgin Galactic] and the things that will follow, we will be able to open it up to people with lots of other skillsets that will help bring space much more firmly into the culture of the world.”
In the meantime, the only alternative is to send astronauts who are also musicians, artists or writers. But with Hadfield now retired, their slender ranks have just thinned by one.
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