Later today, Commander Chris Hadfield begins his journey back to Earth. It's easy to imagine fellow spacemen Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn dragging Hadfield out of the International Space Station, kicking and screaming. "Just one more song!" the Gene Autry of astronauts will plead, frantically tuning his acoustic guitar. "The people need more tweets!"
Everyone else - the other astronauts who spent the term of their mission aboard the ISS as something other than a launchpad for a public speaking career - will shake their heads, embarrassed at the display: mortifying, needy, totally typifying Hadfield's tour of duty as Canada's first-ever ISS commander.
We wish Hadfield a safe return and everything, but his dispatching couldn't come soon enough. Over the course of his 146-day mission, Hadfield has earned undue attention for his exhaustive social media presence and much-publicized media hounding (see: "Chris Hadfield Brushes his Teeth in Space").
In February of this year, the Commander found the time in his busy schedule of testing the scientific hypothesis that you can conduct a Reddit AMA from space to co-write a song with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies. On May 5, he led a sing-along with kids across Canada. Last night, he released a music video covering David Bowie's Space Oddity, with some of the lyrics rejigged for accuracy. (Bowie was no real spaceman, despite having played one in The Man Who Fell To Earth.)
You know that Simpsons episode - and yes, there's always a Simpsons episode - where NASA is failing to connect with the public so they contract an everyman in the form of Homer Simpson to reinvigorate flagging interest in the space program? Hadfield is that everyman. Maybe slightly more qualified. Everything about his beaming media savvy feels designed to pique interest in space travel, especially for young people who latch onto his rocketeer Fred Penner persona.
In the 60s, the astronauts of today grew up on Star Trek and Kubrick's 2001, imagining a brave new world of weightlessness, zero-G go-go skirts, psychopathic computers, and limitless possibility. Now, kids have Chris Hadfield. Forget the cavalier dignity of Captain Kirk or Dr. David Bowman. Now an aspiring generation of would-be space travellers have a chummy, guitar-strumming fun uncle to romanticize, someone who proves that astronauts are just like us.
This is good public relations, sure. But do we really need more astronauts?
Think of the non-Twitter-based research actually being conducted on the ISS: how orbiting the Earth influences circadian rhythms, how microgravity influences blood vessels, how re-entering the Earth's atmosphere from space influences blood pressure. Basically, the study of the effects of weightlessness on tiny screws.
Save for some microbiology and dark matter experiments, the crew aboard the ISS spends their time in space testing the consequences being in space. It's like NASA built a big box - at a price tag $100 billion-plus shouldered by ISS partner states - to examine what it's like to live in a big box.
Many of these experiments could be conducted from Earth, with certain considerations. Hadfield isn't even a scientist by training, having earned his space-wings as a fighter pilot. In what's maybe their most useful capacity, ISS staffers serve as liaisons to other astronauts tasked with servicing the Hubble Telescope - a piece of unmanned NASA technology that seems considerably more useful than the low-orbiting ISS.
The real job of astronauts - and one Hadfield has excelled at - seems to be inspiration. As Lawrence Krauss noted in Guardian a few years back - calling the ISS a "$100bn boondoggle orbiting in space closer to Earth than Washington DC is to New York" - space travel has never really been about science. It's been about adventure.
The space-race of the 60s was little more than Cold War dick-measuring. We went to space because we could, and then figured out exactly what the hell we're supposed to be doing up there. To put a face on the astronomical sunken cost of the space program, organizations like NASA and the Canadian Space Agency have worked to position astronauts not as scientific leaders, but as Heroes. "Astronauts inspire us by their courage and skill," Krauss writes, "and not least by the fact that they risk death every time they step into a spacecraft."
There is something admittedly charming about Hadfield dispelling all these myths of Space Age ennoblement and high-flying derring-do by tweeting about his supper or how he might be afraid to go home. But self-effacement is just another form of PR, protecting a domain of scientific research (and adventure) that has long struggled to justify its exorbitant costs to the public, especially in times of economic belt-tightening. For five months, Hadfield's cheery, astro-Joe Blow demeanour have strategically distracted a public with a renewed wide-eyed interest in space travel from asking for such justifications.
Maybe now that Hadfield has passed the ISS command torch to Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, we can all get back to interrogating the validity of the space program and all this ennoblement of the human spirit stuff. Or, more likely, we can all get back to not caring about it altogether.
Postscript: When I was in tenth grade, Hadfield spoke at my high school and during the Q&A refused to "dignify with a response" my question about apes sent to space returning super-intelligent. It is possible that my exasperation with him at least proceeds from, if is not entirely determined by, a grudge I've held against him since.