I have written elsewhere about my inspiration as a youngster watching Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the Moon, the same event that put another young Canadian boy on the road to command of the ISS. I have written elsewhere about the writings of Carl Sagan leading me to the great Irish mystic poet Yeats. I have written elsewhere about how obvious it seems to me that science and art are fundamentally the same thing, that both inspire and move us, the both change us and our world and, perhaps most importantly, both science and art, and all the wonder they stir in us, are accessible to all of us. I have always known this to be true. I have always seen supporting Science and supporting the Arts as obvious obligations of individuals and society. But I am very aware that many friends and acquaintances have never been able to see through those lenses.
Over the last five months I’ve often thought of Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance in which art comes to a space station as dance. And, of course, I’ve thought of the paintings of astronaut Alan Bean and of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov. While Bean and Leonov’s art is exquisite and inspiring, they painted after they came home. And the Robinsons so wonderfully imagine making art in space, but they never did it. But, perhaps because they lacked the internet, these artists never caught the larger public’s attention. They never joined, on a grand scale, science to ordinary people through art.
I realized tonight as Commander Hadfield’s new video of Space Oddity went viral, that this fairly unassuming gentleman from Sarnia has done it. He has shown ordinary people art and science meeting together And the people get it!
Using social media and the biggest stage possible – the sky – Hadfield has had us watch him rapt for five months as he shape-shifted from rock star to zero-gravity chef to science teacher to science fiction character to military commander, and, finally, to a fifty something man with a crew-cut and moustache who actually pulls off a self-shot music video of his own acoustic cover of perhaps the most iconic Bowie song. Whatever the flaws of adaptation or performance, Hadfield has capped his inspiring public Space Odyssey with a piece of art that captures the tension apparent in his earlier collaboration with Ed Robertson, the tension between the unknowable-to-most joy of looking down on Earth from a home in the sky and the universal human joy of standing at home on the Green Hills of Earth. No longer the story of an ominous malfunction of Major Tom’s capsule which leaves the astronaut stranded, Hadfield’s revised Space Oddity is a bitter-sweet lament for the end of his stay on the Space Station and his final return to earth. He is facing an inversion of Bowie’s original conceit of the Marooned Astronaut – Hadfield knows that it is to Space, not to Earth, that he will never return. With this recording Hadfield has turned a once inconceivable Space Oddity – a Canadian kid from Sarnia becoming the tweeting rock star commander of the International Space Station opening hailing frequencies to Captain Kirk – into an Odyssey of Space very true to the spirit of the Greek epic poem. Although at last he stands on the shores of Ithaca, he can’t help but look longingly back at the Cosmic Ocean he has sailed.
Hadfield has put himself up there and made a point of making art with us and for us from that tin can he’s sitting in. He makes us all feel like we’re there with him, doing science, looking down on our blue home, feeling wonder at the speed and the vastness.
And we can’t help but sing along.
Thank you, Commander Hadfield.
We can hear you, Major Tom!
Update, May 14, 2014: Yesterday Commander Hadfield’s one year licence from Space Oddity‘s publishing company ran out, so the Space Oddity video was voluntarily taken down from YouTube. Sad, in a way, I guess. For those who missed it: you missed something pretty special. For those who saw and heard glitter space rock science fiction become science fact, you’ve been part of something special. This morning Jian Ghomeshi gave us a fine audio essay on the vanishing of Hadfield’s Major Tom.