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“Close your mouth.”

It may sound like an odd thing to be said by a NASA Flight Director on such a momentous occasion but the intention of the message was well meant. Inside the Russian-built Soyuz TMA-07M capsule, three men were falling to Earth, and in order to make the landing more comfortable, they had to clench their jaws five seconds before impact. Close your mouth, indeed.

While on the International Space Station, fifty-three-year-old, Canadian-born NASA Commander Chris Hadfield, who now probably has the most famous moustache in the known universe, would carry out experiments and live-stream them to an audience of curious kids back on terra firma. The videos taught the kids about the wonders of space and what it’s like to live in a gravity-free environment. Tears don’t fall in space; they just hang around your eyes like a blob of clear jelly. Astronauts sleep in a sleeping bag with arm holes and attached to the wall. If you wring out a soaking wet tea towel the water will stick to your hand like a clingy octopus—that’s surface tension for you! It was during these videos that I heard the most wondrous sound in the universe—a chorus of Oooohs and Aaaahs from the kids. It was a sound that made me think that everything was going to be just fine. Those kids were inspired and intrigued. They were interested in science.

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Water in space. Image from Junkee.com

I bleeping love science, and because of that I must give my apologies to Professor Jason Jacobs as I skipped class on Monday the 13th of May.  I stayed home to see Commander Hadfield and Flight Engineers Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko re-enter our atmosphere and land safely in a featureless field in Kazakhstan after spending time on the ISS. It was Hadfield’s third mission in space and it lasted 146 days and 2336 orbits around the planet. The Amazing Race, eat your heart out.

I sat in my Star Trek-esque, ergonomically designed chair and watched the pixels on my seventeen inch laptop screen bring me the future. I watched as the iconic televisions at NASA’s Mission Control displayed a computer generated representation of what the Soyuz capsule was doing. I cursed whenever the dreaded swirly buffering thing appeared. I sent a tweet to Commander Hadfield commemorating the event even though he didn’t have access to Twitter in the capsule:

“Taking the day off Uni to watch @Cmdr Hadfield come back to Earth”

I’m sure he’ll get back to me when he has time. Someone said that the NASA astronaut will never have to pay for a drink in his life. I would relish the opportunity to make that so.

After thirty minutes or so of audio updates accompanied by the aforementioned images and bios of the three falling men, the capsule was finally in our atmosphere and visible from land. Whenever I watch launches and landings live I can’t help but think of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster back in 1986. I remember seeing on television over and over again, those twisting plumes of smoke against a clear blue sky and fiery debris falling a mere seventy-three seconds after launch. The smiles on people in the crowd at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida slowly changed as the realisation of what had happened set in. And the heartbreaking end to the mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia which was destroyed during re-entry in 2003. It plummeted to the ground at over 27,000 kilometres per hour all because of a small, dislodged piece of foam. That was not going to happen today.

A giant parachute strung to the Soyuz capsule fought vehemently against Newton’s pesky forces of gravity. It hung suspended in the middle of the screen as the camera tilted

down…

down…

down.

When it landed, it looked like something out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon; I almost expected a comic cloud of dust upon impact.  I, like many viewers I’m sure, stopped holding my breath.

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International Space Station astronauts Chris Hadfield (left), Roman Romanenko (centre) and Tom Marshburn. Image from abc.net.au

Their fall from space took just under an hour. Keen to preserve the capsule’s descent, I took regular screen captures of the images on my laptop. Sure there would be much clearer pictures on the internet but these were my pictures. I can say “I was there… sort of,” while frantically pressing Ctrl+Prnt Scrn and pasting the picture into paint. I saved the pictures along with other screen captures of various other missions I’d watched live over the years—of numerous Atlas and Delta rocket launches, of the Space Shuttle Atlantis’ final launch, and of its final era-ending return. I was overwhelmed when Atlantis’ wheels screeched as they met the tarmac for the last time—sad to see the Shuttle’s mission come to an end, and uncertain of the program’s future in the nation that won the Space Race. The only way up now is to hitch a ride with the Russians. Oh, the irony.

I think everyone is born a scientist. We are inherently curious about our surroundings from the moment we become aware that we even have surroundings. When I was a kid my Dad taught me geometry and I learnt Pi to forty decimal places: 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971. Aww yeah.

But my love for math and geometry went by the wayside shortly after I discovered boys. I often wonder if there was any correlation between those two events—and if I were a mathematician I could probably tell you the answer. Added to that, numbers on the page get mixed up in my head so I followed the path to the Arts side.

But there may be hope for me yet. As Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Rock God of Astrophysics, notes, a correlation exists between art and science. During one of his goose bump-inducing speeches, Tyson brought up the topic of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and used the painting to describe the symbiotic relationship between these two fields of study and said that science, “does not become main-stream until the artists embrace the fruits of those discoveries.” Art brings science to the masses. Science inspires art, and in turn, art inspires science. In the film Contact is a scene when Jodie Foster’s character leaves our solar system and has difficulty in finding the right words to describe what she sees, “They should have sent a poet,” she says. On his last day in the ISS, Commander Hadfield offered us a video of him singing “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. He was singing and floating “in a tin can,” looking out the window at the planet below; it was as if the song was written for him for that moment. They had sent a poet into space after all.

 

One evening in March in 1986, the grass 100m running track of my primary school, St Bernard’s on Mount Tamborine, was transformed into a makeshift city.  Halley’s Comet was making its seventy-six-yearly voyage past Earth and the whole school community pitched tents under the Milky Way to watch the once-in-a-life-time event. With necks craned, we all watched the show.

The next morning I was back at home, my Mum was outside at the Eastern end of our house. Twenty-seven years later, I can still recall her voice proclaiming, “I can see the comet!” I rushed outside; cold air stung my cheeks and my nose. It was still dawn; the icy frost on the grass was fighting a losing battle against the invasion of the morning. The light was slowly turning pink from the sun but persistent stars stood their ground higher up in the still-night sky. I didn’t need to use a telescope to see a small white line about a centimetre long which stood out amid the blushing backdrop. It was Halley’s Comet. The light from its tail faded into the atmospheric gasses that make stars twinkle and wishes granted. I stood in awe and wondered what it must be like to live up there.

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Comet P/Halley 1982i (no. 85). Left: March 7, 1986. Image from The Earthrise Institute

Commander Hadfield took photographs of the Earth from the International Space Station and posted them on Twitter. He captured peculiar patterns in rock formations and rivers writhing like snakes. At night, cities glowed like fireflies in the dark; from above mountain ranges looked like landscapes from B-Grade science fiction films.  He shared with us a vision of the world free of borders and filled with beauty. Now, he shares with us pictures of the many tests he has endured since his return, all in the name of science. One day, fourteen vials of his blood are drawn. One MRI scan lasts seventy-five minutes. A gadget attached to his hand measures his body’s readjustment to gravity for researchers in a Japanese university.

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Moon rise. Image by Chris Hadfield

Astronauts have trouble getting used to those pesky forces of gravity again after being space for so long. In 0G, you can just let go of your pencil and it will stay there. If you try that on Earth, it comes crashing down. Replace ‘pencil’ with ‘hot cup of coffee’ and you should break the habit soon enough. Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the record for the longest time spent in space. After an astonishing 437 days and 18 hours in 0G, I can only imagine the number of coffee cups he accidentally dropped on the floor after his return.

Hadfield, Marshburn, and Romanenko’s replacements are already safely on board the International Space Station and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin has taken over command along with NASA astronaut Karen Hyberg, and astronaut Luca Parmitano from Italy. I can’t wait to see what they do up there.

During his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said that the United States of America needed to have a “Sputnik moment,” and he was going to invest money in research and development, science and technology. I’m sure that plenty of those kids watching Commander Hadfield’s videos will be up to the challenge.

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