A 3-year-old boy is smiling and babbling on his dad’s lap in front of me. To my right is the cutest 9-year-old boy wearing a blue astronaut outfit and eagerly bouncing up and down on his chair as he is reaching up his hand to ask a question he probably spent a few days thinking up.
The man on the stage in an authentic blue astronaut suit, Chris Hadfield (the Canadian astronaut and ex commander of the International Space station), points at a girl in an orange jumper at the back. She yells out: “What happens when you fly a paper aeroplane in space?”. The grown man in the blue suit, beams, says “That’s a very good question” and starts conducting a science presenter type demonstration of what would happen to a paper aeroplane in space, grabbing the nearest A4 piece of paper to use as an approximation of the paper aeroplane. Turns out a paper aeroplane in a space ship would go on flying until it hit something and would continue travelling for an infinite amount of time in space, due to there being no gravitational pull. The space commander answers all the questions at the Q&A for his new children’s book with kindness, jokes and charm, despite his greying hair and perfectly adult moustache (which is apparently inspired by the fact that engineer Cyrus Smith, the protagonist from his favourite childhood book, “Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne, also had a great moustache). He’s got seemingly boundless energy as he moves around the stage.
Before the Q&A, the audience were treated to a slideshow about Chris Hadfield’s childhood, on which the book “Darkest Dark” is loosely based. We are shown images of Chris as a young boy, teenager in Royal Canadian air cadets and a young pilot, as well as told stories about the images. The gist of the slideshow is that Chris wanted to be an astronaut from a young age but was scared of the dark. He then realised that the dark is full of beauty and wonder. He didn’t let his fears and insecurities stop him in life and worked his way towards his goal of becoming an astronaut in a dedicated and thought-out manner. Or so it seems based on the snapshots of his life. Some of his inspirations are also mentioned, for instance Chris tells us how much watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing on TV at a family friend’s home in Ontario affected him.
After the biographical prelude, Chris reads the book. It’s for very young children. There’s lots of very subtle images drawn with gentle strokes and pastels and little text. The book is very closely linked to the story of his life and how he became an astronaut. It’s very pleasant if brief. The illustrators are two brothers, Fey and Tey Fun, the working process of which was also a part of the presentation before the book reading.
After the book reading, there’s yet another surprise! Chris wrote a song about the book. It’s short and funny, and the kids love it. I must say that I was kind of hoping he would play some Bowie – like he did in his video he sent from the space station.
One of the questions during the Q&A was “How did you play guitar in space?” to which Chris demonstrated, with the help of a small boy he pulled up on stage, that he had to hold the guitar down with his right elbow and hold the frets much tighter too to stop it flowing away. Apparently, that guitar is still in the station and there’s a Russian astronaut who’s playing it now. The only reason that NASA got a guitar into the space station was that they found out the Russians had an old one classical one for years. Then NASA, either from considering that music might help psychological wellbeing or so as not to be upstaged by the Soviets, bought a guitar in a music shop in Texas and sent it up in a shuttle.
Chris Hadfield’s advice to students of today:
“Pursue your dreams – only you can make them come true”
The last step of this event in the beautiful old theatre (The Forum in Bath city centre) is the book signing. Whilst standing the queue, I overhear that you could’ve bought an extra value ticket where you get to meet Chris. Having already shelled out £25 for two books out of the three available (I bought a photobook of images of the Earth from space and also “Darkest Dark” but you could also get the autobiography), as well as £8 for the ticket, I think to myself that no, surely there’s not another thing you could’ve paid for! That’s not cool, why is this man in a blue suit charging extra for kids to chat to him, isn’t he loaded already? But then I turn around and I see Chris signing the books and smiling and leaning down for photos patiently, and I don’t feel so annoyed. It’s good, that he’s doing something with his life after retirement from space travel.
Public engagement is all the rage now, so if his children’s book encourages young kids to strive to be their very best or to learn science, then let him charge for the books, for the show and for the extra meet and greet opportunities. If anyone’s going to be able to get the children of today to work harder or dreamer bigger, it’s the biggest, hardest-working dreamer of all, the little boy who dreamed of going to space and then worked so very hard to make it so, even when Canada didn’t have a space programme. He’s absolutely genuine, energetic, kind and smart. And that’s a rarity for a celebrity these days.
photo credit: NASA, Lizzy Kaplunov