Science & Astronomy
26. June 2013

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield had been instrumental in bringing human spaceflight back into the limelight, but the phenomenal success of his great outreach work did not please everbody: yesterday there was an article in the German edition of Spiegel Online in which ESA director Thomas Reiter complains about the cult around the International Space Station (English Google-translated version here). He says that too much of the minor and unimportant events like eating, taking photos and making music are thrust into the foreground, while the serious science is being neglected. Reiter stops short of directly criticizing his former colleague Chris Hadfield, with whom he actually played some guitar back in 1995 during a Mir mission as Spiegel Online points out, but his tone is exactly the problem we have here in Germany with everthing science-related: having fun is not allowed, it all has to be serious.

I think Reiter’s comments about Chris Hadfield are not particularly fair, since the Canadian had actually reported a lot about science experiments and the general experience of space flight, always making it clear that it’s not all fun and games on the ISS. There are tons of detailed information available on the web about the science experiments on the ISS, but much of that is of such technical nature that it would be hard to explain to non-scientists – Chris Hadfield had, however, found the right balance between entertainment and seriousness. Calling Hadfields work sensationalism shows that Thomas Reiter might have lost touch with the public – when asked if he would have pursued an “internet career” like Hadfield if the technical capabilities had existed during his time in space, he only answers with a forceful “no”. This reaction is all the more astonishing because Reiter is a veteran astronaut himself, having logged 350 hours in space during two long-duration missions on Mir in 1995 and on the ISS in 2006. He mentions that today’s astronauts have another mentality, but completely ignores that he himself is actually about the same age as Chris Hadfield.

What Reiter is right about is the fixation of the media on the actually rather inconsequential events on the space station, but this is not the fault of the outreach work of the astronauts themselves. But his demand to report only about the serious science is the wrong approach – it’s the fun things of space exploration that will get adults and children interested in science, astronomy and even spaceflight, not the dry and serious science. This is exactly the problem that NASA and ESA have had for a long time – their earlier outreach work has been somewhat dull and only got better in the last few years, but it took an Canadian astronaut to raise even more popularity.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano is on the way to become Hadfields successor with his frequent postings on several social networks and he still maintains the same healthy mix of gorgeous photos from orbit, reports about his daily science work and his life in orbit. Yes, there has been some hoopla about ESA’s recently arrived ATV transporter carrying some tasty italian cuisine and that’s another point Thomas Reiter complains about, but the astronauts are not prisoners and their well-being should matter as much as every science experiment. Next year, the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, a civilian scientist, will join the ISS as a crew member – this would be the chance for Germany to step in and do the same great outreach work as Chris Hadfield and Luca Parmitano. The chances are looking good – Gerst has an own website, maintains a Flickr account and is also active on Twitter.

The ISS is not all about science, but also about long-term living in space – while the many scientific experiments are undoubtetly important, we should also not forget that the astronauts are human beings like you and me. Maybe Thomas Reiter has forgotten this.

Write a Comment