Island mother-in-law all a-Twitter about trendy spaceman

Jack Knox

The irony is that just before her son-in-law launched into space, Saanich's Gwen Walter was grousing about Twitter.

The social media service is a pain, she told me, but her daughter Helene's husband, astronaut Chris Hadfield, was pretty handy at it.

An understatement: Since that December day Hadfield has become a star not just in the heavens, but the Twitterverse.

As a result, he is being credited with almost single-handedly getting people fired up about space exploration again.

"The biggest name in space travel since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong," the National Post stated this week. "The coolest account on Twitter," declared another news site. "He has become a phenomenon," says Chris Gainor, the Victoria-based vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Hadfield's Twitter account @ Cmdr_Hadfield was closing in on 450,000 followers Wednesday, almost all of them signing on since his Dec. 19 blast-off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. The former Royal Roads Military College student has spent the past two months aboard the International Space Station. He's due to take over as commander in March before returning to Earth in May.

He is all over social media. One minute the 53-year-old is speaking on air with Star Trek's William Shatner, the next he's playing guitar and singing via remote feed with the Bare Naked Ladies' Ed Robertson and a choir. He tapes cooking-in-spaces videos, engages in conversations with school children, takes photos of everybody's home town, including ours.

On Jan. 13 he posted a photo of us: "Here's Victoria, B.C. Have tea at the Empress and take time to walk through Butchart Gardens." That prompted the Victoria Advanced Technology Council to have some fun of its own, replying with a video in which lasers are fired at the space station, spelling out the message that there's more to the City of Gardens than tea and flowers. VIATeC tweeted the video link to Hadfield on Feb. 14: "A special Valentine from Victoria B.C. to Canada's coolest spaceman."

"He's helping to elevate Canada in the eyes of the world," his proud mother-in-law said on Wednesday.

Walter was still having trouble getting a handle on this whole Twitter business, though - not that she doesn't have alternatives: she communicates with Hadfield regularly via a private email address.

"He even called me on New Years to wish me happy New Year from space," she said.

Walter, CEO of the Kalamari Enterprises promotional-products company, runs a site called through which she markets mission memorabilia, just as she did on Hadfield's previous two space flights in 1995 and 2001. "The only place you can get a crew patch is in Victoria, British Columbia."

Business isn't great, but she hopes that will turn around as Hadfield rekindles the public's interest.

Fans say it's Hadfield's genial personality, as much as his use of technology, that is drawing him an audience. He's someone you would want to have a beer with.

"I did have a beer with him - several beers," says Victoria author Ian Ferguson, who hit the bar with Hadfield after they both appeared at an Ontario literary festival in 2010.

"He showed up in jeans and a golf shirt, carrying a guitar. He sang a country song about shopping at Canadian Tire."

Ferguson found Hadfield a likable, fun-to-be-around guy who was more interested in learning about other people than talking about himself. He thinks it's by being so accessible, so - ahem - down to earth, that the astronaut has connected with young people in particular.

That's important. Where space travel still has a touch of the magical to those old enough to remember Neil Armstrong taking that first step on the moon, younger Canadians grew up with astronauts shuttling back and forth from low Earth orbit like cosmo-commuters on the 50 Goldstream bus. It seemed a bit distant and pedestrian.

"It's only when Chris Hadfield took over their virtual world that it became real," Ferguson says.

Walter agrees. "People were blasé."

But it's not just the kids who are excited about exploring new worlds. Wednesday, for the first time, Walter messaged Hadfield via Twitter.