Canadian astronaut and Commander of Expedition 35 Chris Hadfield, is preparing to return to Earth this evening, along with fellow travelers American Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko. Undocking is scheduled at 7:08 p.m. EDT, with de-orbit burn occurring at 9:37 and landing in Kazakhstan at 10:31 p.m. (8:31 a.m. local)
This “expedition” may be one for the record books. Chris Hadfield has arguably done more to humanize the International Space Station program, at least to a western audience than anyone else to visit the outpost, and if there was any doubt, this superb rendition of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” may seal the legacy for some time to come.
Given that NASA has a hard time getting Americans to pay any attention to ISS except when there is a problem, such as the cooling leak addressed in Saturday’s spacewalk, it might be worth some consideration as to why Hadfield has broken through in a way that some many others have not. During the Shuttle era, which was already coming to a close as social media was making its meteoric rise in our culture, the relatively short duration and tightly controlled nature of the Shuttle flights would have presented a very limited window of opportunity for the kind of connection Hadfield has made.
The ISS program on the other hand, allows for much longer stays in orbit, creating ready-made opportunities for astronauts aboard it to connect with the somewhat larger crew of spaceship Earth, and engage, educate and sometimes even entertain the public which foots the bills. Contrary to imagery presented in the Axe Apollo campaign, perhaps it is not the heroic yet faceless astronaut behind the visor, but instead an individual human being which can spread the message that we really are explorers.