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Ground Control: What Social Media Has to do with the Future of Space Travel

"We're all in this together. This [the ISS] is a space ship, but so is the world."

Those were the words of Chris Hadfield, astronaut extraordinaire, in a fascinating interview with members of the press back in January. During that interview he discussed the reasons why he was so eager to document his experiences of life on the International Space Station via the medium of Twitter.

Hadfield's pictures of azure seas, clouds drifting over coastal regions, magnificent mountain ranges and the night-time brilliance of city lights received huge popularity on the micro-blogging site. Suddenly, satellite imagery of our planet - with which we are all now familiar - was being delivered by a self-appointed editor and voice of the human presence in space.

These weren't just cool pictures taken by a remotely controlled camera, they were exquisite snapshots taken by a guy 370 km above ground which he wanted to share with us. Along the way he explained what we were looking at and commented on the colours, shapes and beauty of what was down there - ironically - all around us.




In the interview I linked to above, Hadfield pointed out that his unique perspective afforded him sights of earthly phenomena which were often difficult or impossible to see from the ground, such as beautiful pre-dawn noctilucent cloud formations high in the mesosphere.

"The world just unrolls itself for you," he said, "and you see it absolutely discreetly as one place. And so when we do look down on a place that is currently in great turmoil or strife it's hard to reconcile the inherent patience and beauty of the world with the terrible things we can do to each other and to the earth locally."

This spiritual substance at the heart of what Hadfield was doing conjures up thoughts of how we have culturally always tied the idea of space exploration to the potential for bettering the human race. One some level, many of us believe that unifying projects like the International Space Station suggest that the internal conflict and self-destructive capacity of mankind is collapsible once we have a worthwhile venture under way.

It's an idea that Bill Hicks - only half-jokingly - used to end his shows with:

"We can explore space together," he notes in his final lines, "both inner and outer! Forever. And peace. Thank you very much."

But space exploration in the Bill Hicks sense is an abstract fantasy. A worthwhile one, but where's the space beef? Chris Hadfield's videos documenting the curiosities of life in Zero G have helped make the reality of space seem a lot more quotidian.

Zero G, of course, is something that a small fraction of humans have experienced. We've seen videos of water globules floating around and astronauts doing somersaults in thin air, but that all became quite clichéd. So instead of cheap acrobatics, when Chris Hadfield floated in front of the camera, he would, always with a personal touch, explain the domestic details of space station living. (Though he often had some object spinning eternally nearby as a visual reminder of just how weird zero gravity is).

"Hadfield focused on telling people what they would have to deal with if they ever became astronauts themselves"

Whether it was how to use a washcloth or how you coped with illness on a flying tin can many miles from a GP or pharmacy, Hadfield focused on telling people what they would have to deal with if they ever became astronauts themselves. His videos, like the one below about space food, were full of informative comments and scientific observations, but they were also lively and inspiring.

Suddenly, the drily named International Space Station was more interesting than some distant, cramped science lab where a bunch of former jet pilots sorted petri dishes and fixed solar panels - it was a freaking awesome TV studio with a real live space host who knew how to engage a discerning 2013 audience.

And Hadfield's grand finale, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" complete with JJ Abrams lens-flare galore (see video below) was an expression of the reality of our human experience in space. Sci-fi movie shots of an astronaut with a planet floating outside his window were actually being made on a real space-ship, by a real astronaut. Our idea of what life in space should be like got a little bit validated.

NASA is not, by any means, new to the world of digital media. Rocket and shuttle launches have been live streamed for years now and one of my first memories of the Internet is of looking at a live map of the International Space Station's position over earth. When it came as close to Britain as possible I would run out into the garden at night time and see if I could spot it. I swear that on several occasions I timed this perfectly and watched the ISS itself, a tiny gleaming dot with people in it, drift silently across the night sky.

And what about the Mars Curiosity rover's Twitter persona? With over 1.3 million followers and a back catalogue of terrible jokes, Curiosity has proven that robots could regale earthlings of the future with stories about interstellar discoveries.



I don't think that all of this social media engagement, to use a marketingism, is simply tangential to the future of space exploration. Rather, I think it is the imprint of why the people who do space travel have a shot at getting us to care about it all. In difficult economic times, and in a solar system still bafflingly bereft of a moon base, space tourism and manned Mars expeditions, space stuff needs good PR to keep audiences interested.

NASA and other agencies involved in this fascinating corner of human endeavour know that public support for what they do is essential to securing budgets and compensating when things go wrong as they, sometimes tragically, do.

"It's an idea. It's a fantasy. We all want to believe it's possible."

"We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard," said JFK in that infamous speech which launched the space race. Since that sentence was uttered space travel has very publicly been about crystallising human ambition and technical achievement. It's an idea. It's a fantasy. We all want to believe it's possible.

I think that's essential and it's something that has always accompanied significant steps in human space exploration. But curiously it's the arrival of social media that has whetted the public appetite for extra-planetary missions.

What's new? Well, the individual's perspective. Not published in memoirs or sound-bites during TV interviews, but tweeted, blogged and video-logged in more or less real time. From space, to earth, to you and me. We've shared in the voyage, had an ongoing emotional investment in it - we never really did before in such detail. I'm not sure that we could have done.

Ultimately, it's fair to say that 2013 was the year space went viral. It seemed more human.

And boy, do I want to go some day.

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