Last night, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was in my city to sign copies of his new book. I am (as you might imagine) something of a space buff, so I tried going to the shop in order to get a glimpse of the man. Unwisely, as it turned out: what I saw was unlike any book signing I’d ever seen–thousands of people queued up for hours in a winding snake of a line, coiled up like an intestine in the shopping mall. I later heard on the news that fans of Hadfield had started camping out in the bookstore more than six hours before the astronaut arrived. There were a few of the usual suspects in the line; myself, a gentleman I’d met in Strasbourg over the summer, and my undergraduate astronomy professor*, but by and large the line consisted mainly of ordinary people, not connected in any way to any sort of space research. When I discovered that the book had sold out long before I’d even arrived at the store, I gave-up and went home**, but I was left wondering: what is it about Chris Hadfield that the public loves so much?
CBC News last night described him as the biggest astronaut sensation since Neil Armstrong. Neil Armstrong was the first Human Being ever to set foot on the surface of another astronomical body; Chris Hadfield, by contrast (and I don’t mean to diminish his accomplishments in any way) did much the same things that astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts have been doing in Low-Earth Orbit for decades–the only difference is that he blogged and tweeted about it. And that, I suppose, is the source of much of the love that the public has for him; he managed to bring that child-like enthusiasm for space-travel back into the homes of people everywhere.
I think, though, that there is a special sort of love that Canadians have for this astronaut, beyond his role as a science popularizer; Chris Hadfield is, quite simply, a source of national pride. Indeed, he is one of the very few things in which Canadians, in this age of shameful governments, corrupt senators and crack-addicted mayors, can take completely unironic pride. No matter how much propaganda shows up on our TV and movie screens, Canadians, as a group, are never going to think of tar sands development as anything but a necessary evil at best; we can talk about how great we are in hockey, but not one of our teams has won the Stanley cup since 1994. But Chris Hadfield is different; he stands (or floats) for science, international cooperation, music, and the peaceful exploration of space. There is no whiff of anything odious behind his motivations. In a cynical time, he is a symbol of almost-unalloyed idealism.
*Otherwise known as the Best Professor Ever! She’s just so cheerful when she talks about the inevitable incineration of the Earth and everything on it when the Sun swells into a red giant. I wonder if she has funding to hire a research assistant…
**I’ve already met a lot of astronauts this year, and I’ll probably get to meet Chris Hadfield soon enough, assuming nothing untoward happens.