The Tweet Heard Round the World

By Dave O'Malley

Being in my seventh decade, and comfortable living at the trailing edge of technology, I was somewhat slow to sign up for a Twitter Account and become a card-carrying member of the Twitter Generation, another atom in the vast "Twitterverse" of people who are sure you want to hear what they have to say. Now, thanks to Chris Hadfield, my weak, prenatal signal now beats an unsteady rhythm from my tiny tennis ball–sized planet... like the heartbeat of a foetus four weeks into gestation.

For years I have smirked at the Tweeters, my inner eyes rolling to the heavens every time I hear more about the rise of the Twitter phenomenon. Every morning, as I leave for work, I pass my young politico neighbour walking his ancient Cairn terrier, leash handle looped to his wrist, while his Popeye-sized thumbs pummelled his Blackberry, typing out his next critical Tweet, like a Wehrmacht cryptologist hammering away on his Enigma machine. At the end of the day, chances are I could find him in almost the same spot, beating out his Tweets, stumbling along while old MacDuff lifts a leg now and then. I never fail to roll down the window glass and shout "Put that #%€$@ thing away, it's at beautiful day." He's a sweet guy, and dialed in.

But, earlier this week, a brief Twitter conversation broke out between two Spaceship Commanders that changed the whole picture I had of what I had previously called the Twits who Tweet. It involved Colonel Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut, presently aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and another Canadian icon, William Shatner, who, as even the Taliban or any remote Amazonian tribe can tell you, played the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk on the first Star Trek series. Hadfield, who is also a Vintage Wings of Canada warbird pilot, is in his first of five months aboard the ISS. In March, Chris will become a true Space Ship Commander when he takes over the command of the massive orbiting research station.

Hadfield has had his sights on being an astronaut and leaving the immediate gravitational pull of his home planet since he was a child. He has dedicated his entire existence to reaching that goal, but he has not sacrificed a rich and loving life to get there. Chris is a true renaissance man, balancing his laser focus on the stars with songwriting, rock and roll guitar playing, photography, flying and above all the nurturing of an open-minded, diasporic and loving family. One of his many gifts, and perhaps his greatest gift to Canada, is his remarkable capacity for communication. An easy grace, a clear voice, a wide vein of Canadian common sense and a passion for life mix together with cultural awareness and charismatic style to have you hanging on his every word.

As he resolutely completed every step along the way to the ISS, he devoured not only Soyuz manuals, Russian grammar texts and charted orbital trajectories, but popular culture from Stan Rogers to the Borg to vintage auto repair. Hadfield embraces social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as powerful tools to reach, challenge and inspire a younger generation of Canadians. In this recent Twitter conversation, he demonstrated his encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek trivia, revealed himself to be a humorist and showed us the value of engagement through culture as well as science.

It wasn't much, it wasn't substantive, but the short conversation between these two great men, facilitated by the remarkable power of a social medium like Twitter, demonstrated the reach, the speed and the humanity of modern communication. By the end, Hadfield was connected to Shatner, two members of his "crew", a member of a spin-off crew and a Canadian Government agency... while the Twitterverse tuned in.

One day later, I was a Twit... or whatever you call us.

Here, for the non-Tweeting world, is that conversation with some interpretation of the code when necessary.

William Shatner opens the Twitter conversation with a query as to whether Hadfield is Tweeting from space or whether he has someone doing it from down on Earth. Shatner usually signs off his Tweets with “MBB” for My Best Bill.

Hadfield responds immediately with a brilliant comeback, jokingly reporting to Captain Kirk, speaking in the lingo of the show, as if he was a crew member on the Starship Enterprise. This is what started all the buzz, with online news agencies picking it up all over Canada and internationally. It is clear that, though Shatner is an actor who played a starship Captain on television and is not a real astronaut, his influence is cultural, inspirational, real and massive. Chris Hadfield grew up as a young boy influenced greatly, as young people are, by the cultural environment in which he was raised. For a space-mad boy, growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Shatner and his character Captain James Tiberius Kirk were nothing short of formative.

Hadfield Tweets back linking to an image provided earlier by Shatner for an online photo challenge that required people to send in pictures of themselves with a cut-out of Canadian astronaut Hadfield.

Shatner replies, with a tinge of shyness in his Twitter voice.

Upon seeing the conversation brewing, and recognizing a wonderful opportunity, the Canadian Space Agency Twitter voice chimes in with an invitation to come to Montréal (Shatner's hometown) for a tour of the facility and a real-time live link to the International Space Station to chat with Chris, Commander to Commander.

Shatner asks how long he has to make the visit.

The Canadian Space Agency gives him a time frame – Hadfield is scheduled to take command of the ISS in March and months later, in May, to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule.

A busy man, Shatner makes no promises... but we know he would love to.


The following day, Hadfield makes another Star Trek reference floating in front of the windows of the ISS Cupola. Red, of course, is the imperative colour of Canada, but it is also the colour worn by ordinary crew members of the Starship Enterprise – many of which seemed to meet their ends on unfriendly planets while all the gold-shirted officers were safe. It seemed to be a mark of someone on the “Away Team” who wasn't going to make it home. The Cupola is a seven-window observatory, used to view Earth and docking spacecraft. Its name derives from the Italian word cupola, which means "dome." The Cupola project was started by NASA and Boeing but was cancelled due to budget cuts. A barter agreement between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) resulted in the Cupola's development being resumed in 1998 by the ESA. The module comes equipped with robotic workstations for operating the station's main robotic arm and shutters to protect its windows from damage caused by micrometeorites. It features 7 windows, with an 80-centimetre (31 in) round window, the largest window on the station. Referring to yet another iconic sci-fi franchise, the distinctive design has been compared to the "turret" of the fictitious Millennium Falcon in the motion picture Star Wars; the original prop lightsabre, used by actor Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in the 1977 film, was flown to the station in 2007, and the Falcon rockets commercial cargo ships that come to the station use, are named after the Millennium Falcon itself.

Wikipedia explains the concept of the red-shirted Starfleet crew member: “A "redshirt" is a stock character in fiction who dies soon after being introduced. The term originates with fans of the Star Trek television series (1966–69), from the red shirts worn by Starfleet security personnel who frequently die during episodes. Redshirt deaths are often used to dramatize the potential peril that the main characters face.”

At the time of the first Tweet, actor, activist and legend George Takei, who played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman on the Enterprise, and was likely “following” Shatner on Twitter, chimes in, posting Hadfield's and Shatner's conversation on his Facebook page. Shatner has 1,300,000 “followers” (people who receive copies of his Tweets), while Takei has 540,000 followers. Between them, much of the Twitterverse is covered... and within minutes close to 2 million people became aware of Hadfield's humorous repartee. Here, Hadfield laughingly mentions Leonard Nimoy by adding in his Twitter ID – @TheRealNimoy. This assures that Nimoy will get his message.

Sulu comments on Hadfield's previous red shirt Tweet.

Lo and behold, the enigmatic and oft-inscrutable Leonard Nimoy responds with a simple LLAP... which, of course, is an acronym for Live Long and Prosper, the traditional greeting of the Vulcan race.

Demonstrating a hard-won and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Star Trek, Hadfield bounces back with a reference to Nimoy's 1975 autobiography (his first of two), I am not Spock.

Spacemen have always loved Star Trek and so it is no surprise that all are connected through Twitter. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step onto the surface of the Moon, joins the hailing frequency.

And finally, Wil Wheaton joins the conversation. Wheaton was a child actor, and played the part of Wesley Crusher, son of Dr. Beverly Crusher, the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Starship USS Enterprise-D on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Memory Alpha Star Trek Wiki explains that a nanite “is built by manipulating atoms and contains gigabytes of computer memory. It is small enough to enter living cells and can be programmed to do numerous tasks. Nanites are used by the Federation for medical purposes and are designed to work inside nuclei during cellular surgery. When they are not used, nanites are stored in a non-functional state. When necessary, nanites can be destroyed with a burst of high-level gamma radiation.” I'm not making this up.

In the voice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of USS Enterprise-D, Hadfield delivers an all-too frequent and familiar admonition to Wheaton's character Wesley Crusher. In the earliest appearances of the youngster on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard was often annoyed by Crusher's presence on the bridge, as he was uncomfortable around all children, but he comes to realize that Crusher understands many things beyond his age and has inherited his mother's high level of intelligence.

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