Hadfield down to earth

Once in a while I’m asked whom I’d like to have lunch with, regardless of whether they are alive or dead. Personally, I’d prefer eating with someone not decaying in front of me and I tend to choose someone alive. That said, I’m usually hard-pressed to pick someone. I am not awed by movie stars nor money. I respect athletes and authors, philanthropists and (some) politicians, but don’t yearn to break bread with most of them.

When pushed for an answer, until now, I’d say Richard Branson, but he’s been ousted from that seat at my table now by Chris Hadfield.

To meet him is to meet your uncle Chris at a family reunion – he’s pleasant, kind, and as interested in what’s happening in your life as much as telling you what he’s been up to. I hosted him when he was the guest speaker at the Convocation at Sault College (he’d done his aviation training there years before), and I still have the posters that he signed for my kids “The sky is not the limit.”

Fast-forward seven years, and suddenly my daughter is learning the ISS song at school and Hadfield was on his way to stellar (pun intended) notoriety. A couple of months later Hadfield had rocketed to fame.

He made science cool. He made space cool. How you ask? I’d say it was for his willingness to be himself unabashedly in front of the whole planet.

Whether he meant to or not, he espouses the triumvirate to which all great leaders and teachers aspire: he knew how to get people to listen, to keep them interested once they were listening, and how to leave them wanting more.

His meteoric fame began by associating himself with Rock Icon Ed Robertson from the Bare Naked Ladies and belting out International Space Station from just that location. An astronaut and a musician? Cool. He also involved us in his work by asking for ideas for space experiments. He got us to listen.

Then, he did what many great teachers do: he continued to creatively ‘sneak in the learning’. The experiments he chose were of interest to more than the scientific elite. We all now know that water will not fly off of a wet facecloth when wrung out in space, it simply looks like it’s become a viscous gel attached to one’s hands.

In addition to the experiments, he brought us into his world (or should I say he brought us our world) by posting photos of the planet on Facebook. We were so proud when he posted the photo of Sault Ste Marie!

His refreshing down-to-earth-(even though he was up in space)-style left us wondering: “What is this guy going to do next?

He managed to get most of Canada’s youth singing his song and I only think branding magnate Coca-Cola has ever done that before (barring the national anthem and the old Hockey Night in Canada tune).

Another astonishing feat by Hadfield was getting students interested in learning, and in the outcome of experiments. Lighting that spark of curiosity might well change a student’s life.

He did all of this on social media, in part with help from his son (or so I read online). He understood that to reach the youth of today you have to “hang out” where they are; and that just happens to be on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. He also swept a lot of us adults along for the ride at the same time.

Hadfield is quirky and charismatic, and is now celebrity A-list material (unless he shaves his moustache and no one can recognize him anymore). His rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity to bid the space station farewell was an epic climax to his time in space.

Now we want to know what he’s going to do for an encore. Canadians are not done with him; he’s left us wanting more. I would expect not only a book of his photography soon, but hopefully a DVD compilation of the experiments and rock concerts from space.

Perhaps selfishly, I want to see a book with his thoughts on life so far, including a mini-biography on this fascinating man (as an author, I only hope I’ll get the chance to help him bring that to the world).

Hadfield’s gentle demeanour allowed him to undersell and over deliver: and he did. We expected nothing particular from our Canadian at the Space Station and were simply proud to have him there. Yet, he has moved a generation with song and science; and with his humility and humanity.

Hadfield has encouraged us to dream big, so getting back to the people whom I’d like to dine with, perhaps one day I’ll get that lunch with Hadfield to talk about working on a book project together.

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