Before I begin, let’s enjoy Chris Hadfield’s stunning music video, in which he performs David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity in the International Space Station, with the assistance of the woefully underappreciated Canadian singer/songwriter Emm Gryner.
Even the Thin White Duke (or at least the social media person in charge of his Twitter account) was impressed. I’m sure he never imagined that his song would ever be performed by an astronaut in space, at least not in his lifetime.
Let me say this now: great things happen when a Canadian brings a musical instrument someplace unexpected.
With all the warm-fuzzy stuff out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this article, which is about a less-happy topic.
In NOW Magazine’s recent article, Space Commodity, which comes with the flamebait tagline “Canadian ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s orbital acoustic tour comes to an end, not a moment too soon”, they buried the lede in a postscript. (If you’re not from Toronto, NOW Magazine is one of the city’s free tabloid-sized alt-weekly newspapers, complete with every stereotype you’ve come to associate with them.)
I shall now excavate that buried lede for you:
Postscript: When I was in tenth grade, Hadfield spoke at my high school and during the Q&A refused to “dignify with a response” my question about apes sent to space returning super-intelligent. It is possible that my exasperation with him at least proceeds from, if is not entirely determined by, a grudge I’ve held against him since.
That postscript — in which a smartass tenth-grader got shot down by a guest speaker (and probably earned some detention to boot) — provides all the context you need for the rest of the article. It’s a “let’s poop on space research and exploration” piece, and it’s poop-by-proxy with a little hipster scorn-for-the-popular dumped on Commander Hadfield like so much pig’s blood on Carrie at the prom. The article smears the ISS’ outgoing commander as a fame-hungry (author John Semley uses the word “needy”) orbital busker and PR flack, and space research and exploration is portrayed as an expensive, pointless boondoggle in spite of the all the direct and (even more importantly) indirect benefits it’s brought to our lives.
Semley — probably unaware of the history of science — is basically replaying the part of one of history’s most notable uptight and dour people: Queen Victoria. Her majesty was questioning her funding of Michael Faraday’s experiments, in which he was learning about magnetism and electricity, and slowly figuring out the connections between the two. Faraday’s contributions are obvious and all around us now, but in the first half of the 1800s, such basic research seemed ridiculous to the benighted and unimaginative. You know, people like Semley.
Queen Victoria asked Faraday what possible use his frivolous studies could have. Every good STEM — that’s Science / Technology / Engineering / Mathematics — person knows his response:
“Madam, of what use is a baby?”
There may not have been practical uses for his trying to figure out electricity, magnetism, and the way the two are connected back then, but it would be just mere decades before his research began to pay off when electric generators, motors and radio came on the scene. The reason Semley can quickly assemble smug, pointless treatises into Microsoft Word and fail to fact-check by hitting Google via wifi is because of “boondoggles” like Faraday’s research. And someday, future generations will benefit from the work being done on the ISS and other space research and exploration programs.
As for the space race and “dick-waving”, yes, those bits are true about the 1960s — but space research and exploration are so much more about that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson explains in the video below:
Here’s what Tyson is saying: the space program is the tent-pole for the entire scientific enterprise, yielding manifold benefits, in ways we haven’t — and can’t yet — conceive.
This is what Semley and NOW Magazine are pooping on: the seeking of knowledge. The expansion of our potential. The grandest human adventure. But please, be sure to carefully read NOW’s stereo ads!
As for Chris Hadfield being the “face” of science and research, all I can say is: “good”. We need more people like him. In a world where people are breathlessly following role models from American Idol, The Voice, whatever insipid staged “reality” show is currently on MTV or its ilk or any number of people from the sports and entertainment industries, we need our Bill Nye the Science Guys, our Neil deGrasse Tysons, and yes, Canadian contributors like our Chris Hadfields. They inspire all of us — not just kids, but even older folks like me — to explore, to experiment, to tinker, to learn, to expand our minds and the horizon of human knowledge. They’re making STEM cool. In our technological age, we need people to think about that stuff — even just a little.
As an added bonus, a lot of young’uns just got their first exposure to David Bowie at his best. What could be wrong with that?
I’ll close with this with Zen Pencil’s rendition of some inspiring words by Commander Hadfield. I dedicate it to John Semley and the others at NOW Magazine, who need the advice at the end the most:
Don’t let life randomly kick you into becoming the kind of adult that writes grossly misleading poison-pen pieces for NOW.