Commander Chris Hadfield - an inspiration

Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield landed back on earth yesterday after over 5 months at the International Space Station, part of that time as station Commander. I'm a little late to the party on this one (which I very much regret), but during his time in space he has used social media and modern communication in an unprecedented way to give people back on earth a wonderful insight into the daily life of astronauts orbiting our planet. Through his eloquent tweets, Facebook messages, educational videos, songs and spellbinding photos from space he's made real-life space travel cool and interesting again. A turning point for the future of space travel and investment in its development, perhaps? He's certainly seems to have awoken in millions around the world that sense of wonder at the beauty of creation that the spectacle of IMAX/3D and CGI-inspired cinema science fiction cinema (which I love!) had maybe dimmed in recent years, despite the best efforts of astronomers who have released to the public the images produced by the Hubble space telescope and satellites such as Cassini (orbiting Saturn).

Click here for some of the stunning photos that he tweeted to the world of features from around our planet as viewed from space.

In the last few days I've been catching up on what I'd missed, initially triggered by the news of his wonderful, moving cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" (with tweaked lyrics) going viral. This in itself has created quite a reaction in the world's media and ensured a certain celebrity status for him. He recorded the vocals, acoustic guitar and accompanying video in space, while back on earth, a team lead by Ed Robertson (a member of the fellow Canadian band Barenecked Ladies) and Hadfield's son Evan, produced backing tracks and edited Hadfield Snr.'s sound + video, timing the release of the track on YouTube with the final day of preparations for his return to Earth with 2 fellow astronauts. The clip currently stands at +12 million views in 3 days and rising!

Hadfield is himself rather the Renaissance Man, as many journalists have pointed out, having already many years experience as a singer-songwriter-performer, for example with 2 bands made up of fellow astronauts. In February he had already performed in the first simultaneous musical performance from space + Earth (again with Barenecked Ladies), a song Hadfield co-wrote with Ed Robertson.

Much of his social media and musical work during the voyage has been of an educational nature, linking up (via the Canadian Space Agency) with young people in Canada to answer their questions in a most engaging, unpatronising, informative and humorous way, for example, in the following video when he answers a question about what happens when you wring a cloth soaked in water in space. This itself has over 7 million views.

As a fellow musician and teacher (for it is quite clear that he has abundant gifts in this area too), I see in him a phenomenon that is for me at the heart of education: passion for one's subject. He does not come across as someone who has sought out his recent fame for narcissistic, self-promotional reasons. Not at all. He seems like someone who is genuinely fired up with a passion to communicate to others his own passion for space travel, its associated scientific domains and, perhaps most importantly, his love for our own planet. Having had to teach a variety of subjects over the years in Secondary (High) School, some through choice, others through necessity, I am only too painfully aware of the correlation between my own interest in what I teach and the resulting interest (or lack of it) shown by my pupils. That which fires up my own passion the most has evolved over the years, but certainly since my return from studies in Paris in 1999 it has been

- sharing my faith through modern Christian (rock) songs that have helped me so much in my own prayer
- and sharing my passion for cinema with its ability to act as a mirror to one's own life and to open one's mind + heart to the transcendent.

I have, however, also made use of science and cosmology (especially Hubble space telescope photos) when teaching Religious Education to older pupils as a way of trying to stimulate in them that same sense of wonder at the beauty of God's creation that Chris Hadfield has sought to awaken in us these past few months.

Growing up, I was always a big fan of near-future science fiction novels and films, as well as being fascinated by the history of manned space flight. "Space 1999" was my favourite TV series back in the 1970s. I recently bought the box set of the two series that were made and have thoroughly enjoyed re-watching these episodes again after all these years. It was a kind of British "Star Trek" without the ironic humour, but with a wonderful sense of atmosphere and quite a dark tone. It's influence (and that of many other classic sci-fi movies) can be seen in Duncan Jones' wonderful 2009 film "Moon" (ironically, Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie!):

"Moon" trailer.

The opening credits for a series 1 episode of "Space 1999".

As a young boy I dreamed (as did many of mine + Cmr. Hadfield's generations) of being an astronaut and exploring in space. I have joked over the years with people about the desire to be the first "monk" in space, not that I would have been able to serve any great purpose by doing so, other than perhaps seeking to (re)awaken in people that sense of wonder. Indeed, Cmr. Hadfield has accomplished far more than I ever could have done in respect to waking people up to the beauty of God's creation.

I know it sounds clichéd, but I really do find people like him an inspiration. In these days of preparation for our move back to Liverpool from our school here in Southampton and the closure of the Brothers' community attached to the school here, it has been so refreshing to have had my eyes lifted to the stars once more in wonder, and to have been so touched and stimulated by his music and other media. They have reminded what it is that I myself am passionate about and reinvigorated me for the challenges ahead.

Indeed, after hearing his "Space Oddity" and then playing the video to all my classes the following day, I decided that evening to take my mandolin round to that old family friend of whom I have written a few times on here, Bernard Weaver, still going strong at 85 and still capable of playing a mean jazz guitar (I'd mentioned my mandolin to him but never shown him it or played it to him). We spent a wonderful evening playing songs old and new (his old jazz standards, Irish folk, some modern worship songs) while his wife Frances was at her weekly prayer group. To see the look on his face from the enjoyment he was clearly having was very touching. It gives me so much pleasure to see others getting pleasure from music-making, be they young or old... and I was having as much fun as he was. It tugged at my heart strings to hear him say at the end how much he will miss me when I go back to Liverpool in the summer, but the Weavers' children + grand-children are planning on getting them an iPad to help stay in touch themselves stay in touch, so we may be able to do video link music sessions from Southampton + Liverpool in the manner of Chris Hadfield + Barenecked Ladies. Not quite as impressive, I know, but just as worthwhile for the pleasure it would give, even to just 2 people...

... and there is also a direct train from Southampton to Liverpool that Bernard is thinking of taking from time to time!

To finish... Chris Hadfield performing in space together with legendary Irish band, The Chieftans who were in Houston, Texas on tour and fellow astronauts back on earth.

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