Space Is Now a Reality TV Show

Chris Hadfield's return from the International Space Station marks a new era for the final frontier.
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Chris Hadfield experiments with water drops in microgravity, January 2013. (CSA/NASA)

"Why are people so fascinated with @Cmdr_Hadfield?" the tweeter asked. "Can someone enlighten me?"

The answers were swift and sharp and unsurprising. "Dude, he's a frigging astronaut!" one replied. "Um, he's an astronaut?" another offered. "What else do you need?" Someone else explained things with a little more detail: "He's inspiring a generation of kids (my kids!) to grow up to be scientists & astronauts and not the Kardashians."

Chris Hadfield -- nom de tweet: @cmdr_hadfield -- has been doing more than inspiring people, though. He has also been entertaining them. And delighting them. He has chatted with Captain Kirk. He has covered Bowie. He has written his own music, and performed it. He has publicly celebrated Valentine's Day, and Easter, and St. Patrick's Day, and April Fool's. He has done a mind-boggling number of live chats and Q&As and video explainers. He has led Canada in a national sing-along. And all of these things have shared a remarkable predicate: They have been done, you know, from space. Hadfield has kept a running dialogue with Earth, documenting not just the numinous -- those amazing views! -- but also the mundane: the food. The fun. The exercise. The sleep. The tears. The bathroom situation.

Hadfield took space out of the realm of the awe-inspiring and placed it squarely in the realm of the awesome.

Over the course of 144 days spent on the International Space Station (encompassing 2,336 orbits of the Earth and covering nearly 62 million miles), Hadfield didn't merely do his day job -- conducting more than 130 scientific experiments testing the effects of microgravity on masses of various types. He also helped to change our concept of what it means to be an astronaut in the first place. Hadfield is a space explorer in the Gagarin/Glenn/Armstrong model, but he is something else, too: just a guy. A guy who happens to be in space. Hadfield, availing himself of new technologies that are just beginning to be widely adopted, made space travel seem accessible. He made it seem normal (or, in astronaut-speak, "nominal"). He took it out of the realm of the awe-inspiring and placed it squarely in the realm of the awesome.

The Right Stuff (for Right Now)
Hadfield wasn't strictly the first to do any of that, of course. He comes from a long line of astro-tweeters, starting with Mike Massimino more than four years ago:

Nor was Hadfield the first to bond with his fellow humans by taking gorgeous photos from space: "The Blue Marble," snapped in 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts, remains the most iconic image of Earth as seen from beyond its confines. And Don Pettit, a veteran of Expeditions 30 and 31, is still the most prodigious ISS photographer to date, to the extent that he is single-handedly responsible for almost half of all the images taken from the Station. Hadfield also wasn't the first to take advantage of advances in video to show the Earth-bound what it's like to live outside the planet's boundaries: Pettit was a notable YouTuber, and Suni Williams ended her tenure as Commander of Expedition 33 by offering earthlings a fairly epic video tour of the Station. Their work in that regard is simply a tech-afforded continuation of the work done by John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: Astronauts have long served not just as explorers and scientists, but also as ambassadors. As, essentially, PR people for NASA and for space travel itself. That's a big part of the gig.

What Hadfield used to his advantage, though, was the copious combination of social media tools that are just now coming into their prime, tools that transform documentation into conversation: Hadfield had Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Reddit, not to mention a public excited, especially after the successful landing the Curiosity rover last year, about space again. Not to mention a 20-person social media team eager to remind the world about Canada's role in the space program. Not to mention a doppelgänger son, Evan, who handled Hadfield's accounts when he couldn't. Not to mention a good deal of luck. (William Shatner's casual tweet to Hadfield back in January won him a flood of followers, Quartz notes, after which his popularity "became self-sustaining.")

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Chris Hadfield encounters "alien life" on April Fool's Day 2013. (CSA/NASA)

Hadfield also had ... Chris Hadfield. He was the right guy at the right time -- and in, wow, the right place: He's a natural performer who seemed truly excited to share his sublime stage with the rest of us. But his performances were intimate rather than epic: He subtly rejected the aura of distant heroism we normally associate with space flyers. Instead, he was nerdy. He was excited. He was delightfully, winkily mustachioed. He was your dad, or your uncle, or your mentor, the kind of guy who probably gets a little choked up when he makes toasts at weddings. Which is to say: He is quirky and real, and he made a point of putting those facts to use. He took all the corporate logic of social media -- the ethos of the "personal brand," the edict of "conversation rather than presentation" -- and applied it, seamlessly, to his life in space. 

'Dude, he's a frigging astronaut.'

Hadfield may have garnered more than 20 million views on YouTube and nearly a million followers on Twitter; but you had the sense, always, that his feeds, full of pictures and poetry and stuff about Canada, was essentially the diary he would have kept even if nobody else could have seen it.

So Hadfield was an astronaut who was also, just a little bit, an astro-not: "The right stuff," in his case, was not only bravery and smarts and swagger. It was also earnestness. And glee. And a childlike delight in the overarching fact of the past 144 days of Hadfield's life: that dude, he's a frigging astronaut.

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So ... this happened. (CSA/NASA)

When Space Becomes Reality TV
For much of the 20th century, pop culture has been obsessed with space. But the obsession was generally marked by ironic distance, and often simply by distance itself: "The Jetsons" was, Matt Novak notes, "the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster." 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Wars movies and the various "Star Trek" series -- and even more recent entries like Armageddon and Independence Day -- were all, in their way, epics. They dealt with tender hopes and soaring dreams.

Recent history has seen a shift in that, though -- a shift helped along by social media tools that have a way of tangling the epic with the banal. Now, space is coming back to Earth, embracing the "pop" as much as the "culture." Bobak Ferdowsi, the flight director for the Mars Science Laboratory mission, became an overnight meme -- based not on his astrophysical process, but on his gravity-defying hairdo. A replica of the Curiosity rover marched in this year's presidential inauguration parade. A character on "The Big Bang Theory" became an astronaut on the ISS. Buzz Aldrin competed on "Dancing With the Stars."

And then there's Hadfield, a man whose meme stretched out over time. Hadfield's efforts -- aided, of course, by NASA's, and by the Canadian Space Agency's -- gave a new dimension to the popularity of space. They framed life outside of the planet as simply a premise for a new strain of reality TV -- one in which, you know, six strangers were picked to live in low-Earth orbit and have their lives taped. Instead of space as The Final Frontier, instead of space as the embodiment of humanity's past and its future -- instead of space as magic and mystery and fear and opportunity, wrapped into one distant, shining abyss -- space is quickly becoming, in the popular conception, simply a cool place to hang out. "Space tourism" is an exponentially common term. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are rumored to be among the celebrities who have bought tickets for Virgin Galactic's upcoming sojourn to space. Projects like Mars One, which is recruiting civilians to populate a colony on the Red Planet, are promising dreams of space travel even to those who don't boast traditional iterations of "the right stuff" -- dreams that will be funded, in part, by the reality TV-style broadcasting of the astronauts' selection and training process

The final frontier may now be experiencing the fate that befalls any frontier: It stops being a frontier.

Helping all this along has been Chris Hadfield. Hadfield, more than any other astronaut who has lived on the ISS since its construction, has turned space travel into a serial TV show, featuring gorgeous sets and ongoing character development and unexpected plot twists. NASA makes a point of livestreaming (and then rebroadcasting) many of the events that take place on the ISS through NASA TV. And Hadfield and his team have been there to do the rest, producing the videos and Tumblr posts and tweets and AMAs that have fleshed out, quite literally, the experience of space travel. They have turned life in space into a kind of epic sitcom: distant from its viewers, yet recognizable to them, too. It's microgravity-based media that makes the familiar seem foreign, and vice versa.

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The members of Expedition 34 celebrate Christmas aboard the ISS, 2012. (NASA)

And that's a good thing. NASA is publicly funded. It relies on public interest not just in the tangential way that some other government agencies do, but in the direct and existential way that politicians do. NASA, effectively if not literally, needs your vote. So the agency has a vested interest in keeping the public happy and convinced that it's doing good work with taxpayer money. One way to do that is to develop the same skill set politicians have to keep us, their constituents, happy: Entertain us, constantly. Make us laugh. Distract us. Delight us. 

And why go on Leno when you can simply show the world what happens to a wet washcloth in microgravity?

"Communications tools don't get socially interesting," Clay Shirky has argued, "until they get technologically boring." The same may be said of space. As a destination --- as a place, as a dream -- space may be, ever so slightly, losing its former mantle of foreignness, its old patina of awe. The final frontier may now be experiencing the fate that befalls any frontier: It ceases to be a frontier. Its settlers come to think of it, more and more, as an extension of what they know ... until it becomes, simply, all that they know. Until it becomes the most basic thing in the world: home. 

Space is becoming ordinary. And that means it's about to get really interesting.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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