I met a spaceman

Reading time: 3 mins

Ground control to Major Tom…
Ground control to Major Tom:
Lock your Soyuz hatch and put your helmet on!

I can still remember the first time I heard Space Oddity. I can recall just how otherworldly it sounded to me and while that was largely down to Mr. Bowie (an entirely other being for sure) it sits squarely alongside a similarly titled book that I’d just finished reading which was, in turn, the very reason I had listened to that track in the first place.

I was maybe 12 years old at the time and the idea of space was more Star Wars than 2001 but I was slowly learning about the Apollo program and pages of my encyclopedia were starting to fall open at anything space related. I wouldn’t say it was a phase, it wasn’t like I wanted to be an astronaut or anything but, especially for people who grew up in the 60, 70s and 80s, space was a big deal.

The Space Shuttle was still active, and no matter how many times you see the footage it’s still mind-boggling to imagine, regardless how you try and frame it; as an engineering feat it’s one of the greatest achievements of mankind, the scale of it beyond anything done before; as a spectacle it’s equally mind-boggling, watching something that large move so so quickly.

And these days with the rise of social media, streaming content from the ISS being, it’s even more prevalent and even easier to keep up with. The fascination remains.

Fast forward to last Friday and I, along with a thousand or so others, found ourselves face to face with a spaceman. He goes by the name, and title, of Colonel Chris Hadfield, and there he was, an actual real life astronaut.

I’ve seen him interviewed and watched his YouTube videos that he recorded in space but wasn’t really sure what to expect. On stage were two chairs, two glasses of water, so I presumed it would be interview style. I was wrong, wonderfully wrong. Instead he spent about 1hr 45mins talking about, well, everything.

From his earliest days watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, through all the decisions he made, all the things he decided to learn, he reaffirmed one notion; he wasn’t born an astronaut. He learned new things he thought would be useful, he looked at where he wanted to go and made decisions based on that desire, the desire to one day make it into space.

He also talked about the impact seeing the world from space and how clear it is that this is one world, that borders are invisible up there. He talked about the amazing and inspiring people he has worked with, all different genders, races, and religions. He talked about what happens when things go wrong in space (answer, you don’t panic because you’ve practised for when things go wrong).

He also made us laugh. Describing an incident he had during a spacewalk, when he was rendered temporarily blind, we all laughed aloud when he told us he was venting the air from his helmet out into space. I know, it doesn’t sound funny, maybe it’s the way he told it…

What struck me most, especially considering the number of young adults and children in the room, was his constant reaffirmation of ‘you can do whatever you want’. His positivity and belief that humankind is better together shone through. Even though they faced great danger, he said, it was important to remember that danger does not equal fear, you only fear the thing you do not know or have not prepared for, and that fear is easily overcome by learning and practising.

Yet it was all hyperbole. At one point he informed us that the odds of ‘something bad going wrong’ on his first flight aboard the Space Shuttle was 1 in 38. A quick check and it turned out that there were about 38 seats in each row of the seating. Would we have turned up that evening knowing that one person in each row would die?

Yet despite all the grandeur of space, and all of his amazing achievements, Colonel Chris Hadfield remained wonderfully self-effacing, full of empathy for his fellow humans, witty, and boy does he have a splendid moustache. His talk was uplifting, motivational, moving, revealing, and entertaining. He held our attention easily for the entire time, peppering his talk with photos and video clips and, of course, he closed by talking about that song, a version of which he recorded in space.

At the very end, he picked up a guitar and to a backdrop of a video showing shots of the world whizzing by underneath the ISS, he strummed and sang.

I can still remember the first time I heard Space Oddity and 30 years later for just the briefest of moments, on a dreich Friday evening in Glasgow, I was there. I was Major Tom.