A home out of this world

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The stars over Belgium by S Cappallo

I’m fascinated by sense of home. I’m not sure why but I often find myself feeling overwhelming nostalgic for moments and places where I have felt that sense of being at home: the living room of my childhood home, the dryer is on and the windows are fogged up; it’s autumn in St Andrews and there are leaves in the sea; the smell of coal fires filling the air on cold Cornish nights; summer evenings at Wollaton Park. I even sometimes feel anticipatory nostalgia for Amsterdam. Seemingly small things, like fogged up windows, can take us back to a particular time and place, tying us to that moment.

I recently read retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. It provides an interesting insight into the life of an astronaut (most of which is spent on Earth) and it’s an inspiring read: Hadfield made it his life’s goal to go to space when Canada didn’t even have a space programme. But there is one passage in particular that has stayed with me. Hadfield is in the Soyuz, on his way to take command of the 35th ISS expedition:

Every crew brings its own small, tethered “g meter,” a toy or figurine we hang in front of us so we know when we are weightless. Ours was Klyopa, a small knitted doll based on a character in a Russian children’s television program… When the string that was holding her suddenly slackened and she began to drift upward, I had a feeling I’d never felt before in space: I’d come home.

I find the idea of an astronaut feeling that sense of home in space pleasing.

Hadfield garnered a huge following on social media during his time in space and released a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity filmed on the ISS that went viral. He has been credited with reviving public interest in space travel. This upsurge in interest might also explain the recent spate of films about space, such as Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian.

What struck me about all of these films is that ‘home’ is a central theme. Gravity and The Martian both feature an astronaut trying to get home to Earth, whilst Interstellar features an astronaut trying to get home from a mission to find a new planet for humanity. The narrative of the hero journeying home is as old as time, but the narrative becomes even more compelling when you add space exploration into the equation. It is as though space exploration not only enhances our understanding of the universe, but also of ourselves, and of the planet we call home.

I also recently listened to an episode of a podcast called Song Explorer, which features interviews with songwriters about a particular song they’ve written. The episode I listened to featured John Roderick of The Long Winters discussing his song ‘The Commander Thinks Aloud’. The song is about the Columbia Space Shuttle that broke up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven of the crew on board. The song features a line that repeats several times towards the end: The crew compartment’s breaking up. In the podcast Roderick says that when he is performing the song live he has to be careful that he doesn’t sing that line too many times and get choked up. But it’s the very last line of the song that gets me: This is all I wanted to bring home to you. They were so close to home.

Whether our home is here on Earth or out in the stars (or both), that sense of home is a strong force.

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