How Chris Hadfield became the most famous astronaut on earth

“Here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world.”
“Here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world.”
Image: NASA
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As you read this, a moustachioed Canadian astronaut named Commander Chris Hadfield is readying himself for a ride from the international space station down to earth, with 800,000 Twitter followers in tow. When he left the planet on Dec. 19, that number stood at roughly 20,000.

Neither Hadfield nor the 20-person strong communications team at the Canadian Space Agency set out to grow his count of Twitter followers, let alone try to make him of the the most widely recognized astronauts since Neil Armstrong. In fact, the CSA had a much humbler mission: to tell their countrymen that there is such a thing as the Canadian Space Agency and to interest young Canadian students in science and technology.

That mission went well. During his five months in space, Hadfield performed experiments with schoolchildren via a  video link to Nova Scotia, established contact with schools in Nunavut and Yukon through amateur radio, and sang along with nearly 1 million students via webcast. And that’s where it might have ended. When Robert Thirsk became the first Canadian to spend six months on the international space station in 2009, the CSA focused mostly on text accounts of his experience that it posted on its website. The results were underwhelming.

“We noticed that the text format is not appealing to people right now,” says Julie Simard, a CSA spokesperson. “So we decided that with social media and everybody having access to YouTube and content that is fun and informative, we would use video.” As it turns out, the appetite for “content that is fun and informative” turned out to be huge: a video of Hadfield wringing a hand towel in zero-gravity has received 7.4 million views. In total, his videos have gathered more than 22 million views. This one, below, of Hadfield covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, posted less than 24 hours ago, seems destined to be a classic.

Hadfield received a minimum of social-media training. The agency taught him how to use a high-end camera but the extensive use of Twitter was his own initiative, according to Simard. That explains why he tweets like a normal human being rather than a paid spokesperson: Hadfield’s tweets are often quite funny, he is not averse to replying to messages, and he takes lots of pictures. Indeed, the pictures contributed a great deal to his success, says Simard: “Everybody can relate to their little corner of the world. And the text that Chris writes is not just ‘Oh, here’s Ottawa.’ He always puts something fun or interesting.”

The big moment for Hadfield’s follower count came just two weeks into his mission, on Jan. 3, when William Shatner tweeted at him.

After that, the astronaut’s popularity became self-sustaining, with thousands of new followers, who in turn discovered his videos anew, and sometimes ended up at the CSA website. Traffic to the agency’s website is up 70% on last year, according to Canada’s national broadcaster.

Simard says she expected Hadfield to become popular in Canada but admits to being surprised by the worldwide interest he has generated. Perhaps what made Hadfield such a hit may have less to do with the mere fact that he was tweeting from space—plenty of other astronauts have done the same— but that he talked about sport and his kids and made stupid jokes. A lot of people use social media for such ordinary things. That he was doing it from space is what made it extraordinary.

The Canadian Space Agency is putting on a show for Hadfield’s return tonight. A live webcast will be available here starting at 9.30 p.m. ET/2.30 a.m. BST/3.30 a.m. CET.