Thanks to the wonderful Topping and Company, an independent bookshop in Bath, I had the opportunity yesterday to attend a very special literary event. Colonel Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut, is currently in the UK promoting his second book, You Are Here: Around The World In 92 Minutes. As part of this tour he stopped off in the city to give a lunchtime talk. It turned out to be inspirational.
Like a great many of his fans I first became aware of Chris when he started to tweet from the ISS in early 2013. His tweets contained links to pictures of earth unlike any I had seen before. The videos of how seemingly ordinary tasks become extraordinary in zero gravity were fascinating. His voice was that of a person in awe of their surroundings, tweeting from a slightly geeky and very accessible perspective. I was excited at the prospect of meeting my favourite Starman.
The event was held in The Forum, a converted cinema with impressive art deco fixtures and fittings. The large auditorium allowed the maximum number of people to attend and I was pleased to have been allocated a good seat in the stalls. As I waited for the talk to start I noted that there was a guitar on stage.
Well, I assume you too have seen the video? Not the same guitar of course. Apparently the instrument on the ISS was put there at the behest of a psychiatrist and is well used by all on board.
Chris took to the stage and immediately engaged with his rapt audience. He talked of the challenges of spaceflight, the need for years of intense and meticulous preparation, the science behind space travel and the excitement of being at the cutting edge of man’s continuing exploration into the unknown.
I cannot do justice to his words; Chris is a skilled orator. He also came across as down to earth, an ironic use of that expression given his background. He made vaguely understood concepts come alive and complicated science understandable. STEM and the space industry could not ask for a better ambassador.
Having talked through his experiences with the aid of a series of pictures and a video of a launch (he has been in three), Chris then invited questions from the audience. Rather than simply answering each question he talked around the issues raised, thereby offering fresh insights into the reality of living in zero gravity with just five other people who must each be able to survive day to day in cramped quarters, do their research jobs, and react to any emergency with the limited resources available.
While much of his talk was eye opening as the work required, challenges to overcome and dangers involved came to life, Chris also managed to keep things light. He mentioned several times how uncomfortable a space suit is to wear, how difficult it is to work in, and how, after a six hour space walk, astronauts come out bloody from the chafing. Unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity they do not step out looking amazing.
The event was scheduled to last for two hours and the time flew by. However, Chris did not forget the presence of that guitar and finished with a live rendition of his version of Space Oddity. I found this surprisingly moving and hope that the lucky child who was presented with the plectrum he used will treasure it.
This was so much more than a book promotion, but I didn’t see many in the audience who were not clutching at least one copy of Chris’s new book as they left. The queue to have them signed snaked right around the hall, out the doors into the foyer and then doubled back on itself. That is a lot of books. I shall treasure mine.
I came away from the event feeling uplifted and with one message clearly learned. We live on the surface of a small planet, all of us. We breath the same air that exists only on a tiny layer between our earth and the vastness that is space. Let’s look after it, and each other.
Chris’s wife tells everyone she meets that his book would make a great Christmas present. I cannot help but agree.