There’s been a curious thing happening in space in recent months, even more luring than the unending vastness of the cosmos. Astronauts – global stars by their very definition – have started to acknowledge their own star power. They’re acting a bit more like Earthlings. Relaxing a bit.
Whether it’s making tongue-in-cheek music videos or just indulging in the time-honoured classic of messing about with floating blobs (the I-stole-your-nose-not-really-it’s-my-thumb trick of space entertaining), things are lightening up. And it’s nothing to do with gravity.
Technology on the ground is now playing a major part in how we interact with those 370km above. Social media means we can contact them any time and stay updated as they send back stunning photos of our previously unremarkable neighbourhoods. You can perhaps ask them what they had for breakfast – or when breakfast is, if the sun’s rising every hour and a half.
Yesterday, Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping taught a school lesson from space, where the likeable, fresh-faced pilot explained to kids back on Earth how having no gravity messes up the swing of a pendulum. She batted questions back and forth, took part in something looking like a magic show and struck comedy kung fu poses. Needless to say, it didn’t look like rocket science but it was broadcasting to a not-insignificant audience of 60 million people. You need a pro up there for that – an entertainer, not just an expert – even if Neil Armstrong already delivered the best one-liner of all time.
No doubt this new breed of carefree space cadets has its interaction vetted by cautious governments. But really it's the astronauts themselves, not a faceless organisation or several tonnes of steel hurtling around the globe, that’s capturing imaginations.
Canada’s Commander Chris Hadfield is the headline act in the current space race. Though he’s back on this planet, his archly knowing and oddly emotional rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating around the International Space Station got people interested in what’s above them for the first time in a generation or two.
Whether it’s got any scientific merit is another question. But the nerds are now showing you can be funny, engaging and maybe even a rockstar in space – the place where nobody used to be able to hear you scream.
Tom Hall is a contributor for Monocle.