Chris Hadfield was a top Canadian military aviator and is a senior member of the elite astronaut fraternity. He's flown in CF18s, space shuttles, the Soyuz rocket and has twice travelled to the International Space Station. Despite these accomplishments, it was only when he started sending snapshots from space that he became an Internet sensation.
Mr. Hadfield has a long list of credentials in his pocket and a host of scientific experiments under way, but it is his determined use of a pair of Nikon D2 and D3 cameras to photograph the world from space that has seen his social media following rocket to 162,000-plus followers, doubling and redoubling several times in less than a month. This week alone, he has added more than 80,000 followers.
Known as @Cmdr_Hadfield on Twitter, the astronaut has struck social-media gold documenting the world city by city, sight by sight. He's paid particular attention to Canada, firing off shots of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia and southwestern Ontario in the space of about 34 minutes Thursday, to the delight of Canadians who are flocking to his feed.
"Ever since my first flight to the Russian space station Mir 17 years ago, I've always maintained that the favourite pastime of the astronaut is looking at the world out the window," Mr. Hadfield said Thursday in a press conference from the ISS that was beamed to the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal.
"It is so fundamentally beautiful and mesmerizing. I've been doing my best with words to describe it ever since I first saw it from Space Shuttle Atlantis just after we launched. Now, I can directly, as I see beautiful things, send those pictures to the ground. You can see the reaction. They've captured the eyes and the imagination of people."
But as mesmerizing as winter shots of Winnipeg or the Great Lakes can be, Mr. Hadfield said his favourite sight are the noctilucent clouds found high in the atmosphere, usually beyond view from earth.
"They're the highest clouds that exist. Tiny ice particles that are way up in the mesosphere but from orbit, as the sun rises, as the light bounces off those clouds into our eyes, we can see part of the Earth's atmosphere that is basically invisible to people on the surface," he said.
"To me, that's beautiful, because of colours textures and ripples, but also significant to understand the changes of our atmosphere and to understand exactly how our atmosphere interacts with the universe beyond."
Mr. Hadfield laughed at the suggestion he has become "Astronaut 2.0" for his sudden popularity on Twitter and his amusing exchanges with real astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and those who played them on TV, including William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. "I'm just a member of the crew," he said. "What we're doing on the space station is fundamentally fascinating. I think the evidence shows through a measure like Twitter."
Mr. Hadfield's mission doesn't end until March, which is a lifetime in viral Twitter popularity. He's got a long way to go to match the millions of followers of entertainers such as Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne. But hockey star Taylor Hall (228,000) and novelist Margaret Atwood (369,000) could well be celebrities he catches next.