Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘space’

18 MARCH, 2014

Astronaut Chris Hadfield Covers Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in Space

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“Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…”

For no other reason than sheer soul-uplifting awesomeness, here’s astronaut Chris Hadfield — yes, him — covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the International Space Station, which Hadfield considers “the world’s first great outpost away from the world”:

Hadfield, whose 2013 book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything is absolutely fantastic, also performed “Space Oddity” at TED 2014. Here’s a serendipitous shot that makes his guitar look like a tiny sun:

It may seem a small thing, silly even, but how little it takes to get Earth excited about space, and how very necessary that we do so. Perhaps we need more Chris Hadfields to rekindle public interest in space exploration.

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27 JANUARY, 2014

Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Success and the Meaning of Life

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“If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster.”

Shortly after the release of his fantastic book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (public library), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sat down with celebrated British-Canadian broadcaster Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s The National to discuss his experience aboard the International Space Station. From his sage advice to Olympic athletes, the essence of which extends more broadly to our culture’s flawed relationship with striving and success, to his simple, profound contemplation of the meaning of life, Hadfield proves himself to be not only a fierce explorer of the universe, but also a deeply thoughtful explorer of the human condition, capable of articulating those most universal of inquiries in simple yet profound language. Highlights below.

On the trouble with goal-oriented striving, echoing Thoreau’s definition of success and seconding Cheryl Strayed’s memorable assertion that “the useless days will add up to something [for] these things are your becoming”:

If you view crossing the finish line as the measure of your life, you’re setting yourself up for a personal disaster. … Commanding a spaceship or doing a spacewalk is a very rare, singular moment-in-time event in the continuum of life. You need to honor the highs and the peaks in the moments — you need to prepare your life for them — but recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life and, in fact, that’s the richness of your life. … The challenge that we set for each other, and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge, is life.

On the meaning of life, adding to the famous contemplations of cultural icons:

I’ve had a tremendous privilege of perspective that almost nobody has had. When you talk about the meaning of life, we tend to think about it as life on Earth. To be away from the planet for a long time and to be able to see it constantly out the window allows you a reflection on it that is really hard to get just in regular day-to-day. So I think if there is any sort of meaning of life, it’s got to be very personal. How does the life that you lead affect your own conclusions about what’s important to you?

The book itself is absolutely spectacular. Hadfield paints a backdrop in the introduction:

The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles. Every 92 minutes, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars. The secret patterns of our planet are revealed: mountains bump up rudely from orderly plains, forests are green gashes edged with snow, rivers glint in the sunlight, twisting and turning like silvery worms. Continents splay themselves out whole, surrounded by islands sprinkled across the sea like delicate shards of shattered eggshells.

Floating in the airlock before my first spacewalk, I knew I was on the verge of even rarer beauty. To drift outside, fully immersed in the spectacle of the universe while holding onto a spaceship orbiting Earth at 17,500 miles per hour — it was a moment I’d been dreaming of and working toward most of my life.

In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield goes on to explore not only how he attained that exulted moment against remarkable odds, but also how he filled the seemingly mundane moments, those in-between pockets of living, with pure life.

Thanks, Craig

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13 JANUARY, 2014

Weight and Weightlessness: The Science of Life in Space, in Charming Vintage Illustrations

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An impossibly lovely primer on how gravity works and why we don’t fall to the center of the earth daily.

As a lover of vintage children’s books, especially ones about science and space, I was thrilled to chance upon the 1971 gem Weight and Weightlessness (public library; Abe Books) by science writer and then-director of Hayden Planetarium educational services Franklyn M. Branley — which renders him cultural kin to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Written less than two years after the historic Apollo 8 moon landing and featuring impossibly lovely Gorey-esque illustrations by British-born, Canadian-raised, California-based artist Graham Booth, this out-of-print charmer tackles the scientific puzzle of what weightlessness actually is through examples from both everyday life and the fascinating world of space exploration — a subject at once of enormous cultural importance and suffering tragic political neglect at the moment.

When you weigh yourself, you step on a scale. The gravity of the earth pulls you down onto the scale. Suppose you weigh sixty pounds. That means gravity is pulling you with a force of sixty pounds.

The scale tells how strongly gravity is pulling you down toward the center of earth. If there were a deep hole under the scale, gravity would pull you all the way to the center of the earth.

The scale and the floor beneath you keep you from being pulled to the center of the earth. They push up against gravity as gravity pulls down.

You can feel the pressure on the soles of your feet. That’s what a scale really measures. It tells how much push upward there is against the pull of gravity downward.

Suppose, all of a sudden, there was a deep hole under the scale. And suppose you and the scale fell into the hole. You would not feel any push upward on the soles of your feet. There would be nothing pushing upward against the downward pull of gravity. Now the scale would read zero.

As long as you keep falling you would be weightless.

That’s why astronauts in spaceships are weightless. They are falling. Nothing is pushing back against them. They are falling around the earth. The astronauts are falling, the spaceship is falling, and so is everything inside it.

They do not look as if they are falling. But they are.

If the rocket went up straight and then changed direction, gravity would still pull it back to the earth. But now the rocket would not come straight down. It would move in a curved path.

Astronauts like weightlessness for a while. It’s fun to float in space. And it’s funny to see things floating around you.

But after a while, an astronaut gets tired of being weightless. He likes to feel something solid under his feet when he stands up. And he likes to feel a bed under his back when he lies down. Also, it’s nice to have food served on a plate, instead of squeezing it out of a tube.

Weight and Weightlessness is well worth the hunt for a surviving used copy. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on the value of space programs, an illustrated chronicle of the Space Race, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s moving Senate testimony on the spirit of space exploration.

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