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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Astronaut Dr Jeffrey Hoffman has few fears for future of our planet

The Space explorer chats to 'The National' about the speck of dust we live on

The Strait of Gibraltar, as seen from the space shuttle Endeavour during NASA's STS-77 mission, May 1996.  Space Frontiers / Getty Images
The Strait of Gibraltar, as seen from the space shuttle Endeavour during NASA's STS-77 mission, May 1996. Space Frontiers / Getty Images

One Strange Rock returns to National Geographic on Saturday, and this week astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman will be joining regular host Will Smith to talk about his perspective of Earth from space.

Having logged a total of 34.6 million kilometres in space, Hoffman is in a supremely qualified position to offer his thoughts on our tiny but beloved, speck of dust in the vast universe. He was the first astronaut to spend 1,000 hours on the space shuttle Columbia, and has carried out four spacewalks, including the first unplanned spacewalk in Nasa history.

Asked about what Hoffman has learnt from his stellar travels, he replies: “It’s a planetary perspective. And I think that one of the things that we all share when we look at Earth from so far above is to get the sense of it as a planet.”

The former astronaut adds that he hopes this is something he can share with audiences on Saturday night: “I think we’re all hoping that, through the extraordinary imagery and storytelling of One Strange Rock, that the viewers will be able somehow to share this planetary perspective. If we’re going to solve our problems on Earth, it has to be done on a planetary level. So we’ve got to be able to see the Earth as a planet. I think this show will accomplish that.”

One Strange Rock itself, produced by Oscar-winning director Darren Aranofsky, aims to explore “the fragility and wonder of planet Earth, a curiously calibrated speck of a planet in the harsh universe”, although Hoffman clearly is not convinced we need to dwell on the fragility too much.

Although he hopes the show’s wider perspective on planet Earth may encourage viewers to think more carefully about how they treat their home, he’s confident that the Earth will be just fine, with or without assistance from its human guests: “I don’t think the question is so much saving the Earth. The Earth is going to do okay. It’s been around for a long time.” He says: “The real question is whether it’s going to be able to continue to support humanity. So if I’m concerned about anything, it’s more about the future of humanity than the future of planet Earth.”

Astronaut Jeff Hoffman uses a power wrench to loosen bolts on an access door on the Hubble Space Telescope 05 December 1993 during the first of five planned spacewalks scheduled to repair the spacecraft. Hoffman and crewmate Steve Musgrave successfully installed new gyroscopes and electronics in the telescope. / AFP PHOTO
Astronaut Jeff Hoffman uses a power wrench to loosen bolts on an access door on the Hubble Space Telescope 05 December 1993 during the first of five planned spacewalks scheduled to repair the spacecraft. Hoffman and crewmate Steve Musgrave successfully installed new gyroscopes and electronics in the telescope. / AFP PHOTO

The series also explores some of the questions many of us take for granted: why is Earth the only planet that we know to support life? How fragile are the perfectly tuned systems that sustain this living planet? What are the greatest threats to the environment and human existence on Earth? Are we alone, and where did we come from? Is there really no place like home?

Each week, Smith welcomes a guest astronaut on the show – Hoffman is one of a select group of 556 people who have been into space according to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s criteria – the US Air Force make it 562 because they see “space” as 16 kilometres closer to Earth – but despite the hard work and the element of luck involved in joining that exclusive club, Hoffman says he thinks he was always destined to travel to the stars: “I climb mountains, I’ve jumped out of airplanes. It’s in the DNA,” he says. “My father did those things; my brothers do those things. I think that’s probably something that’s common to all of us. But we do it in an intelligent way. I don’t want to throw my life away [so] I trained as an astronomer.”

With five trips into space to his name, no one could accuse Hoffman of idling his life away, and he identifies one particular mission as a high point – perhaps in part due to his training as an astronomer: “We fixed the Hubble Space Telescope,” he says. “We turned it from a colossal failure into Nasa’s greatest scientific achievement. What was that worth? To have put my two hands on the Hubble Telescope in space – that’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life and was definitely worth taking a risk for.”

Hoffman has retired from active space duties – his last stellar voyage was in February 1996 – and he now dedicates his life to teaching others about space travel, and hopefully helping to further space exploration for future generations. He spent four years as Nasa’s European representative, working at the US Embassy in Paris, and in August 2001 he joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where he teaches courses on space operations and the design of space systems.

He is closely involved in research to improve the technology of space suits and designing systems for human and robotic exploration of space. Hoffman is also responsible for the space-related educational activities of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, and is deputy principal investigator of the Moxie experiment on Nasa’s Mars 2020 mission, which will for the first time produce oxygen from extra-terrestrial material, a critical step in human space exploration.

Hoffman clearly sees his appearance on NatGeo as a further opportunity to teach society about the lessons he has learnt on his travels, and he also feels that One Strange Rock can offer audiences something a little out of the ordinary: “I don’t think any of the people will ever have gotten an image like they’re going to get from this show, because it’s really unique,” the stargazer says confidently.

Space travel facts

- Total time spent by humans in space - In excess of 141.6 man-years

- Total number of people who have been in space (USAF definition) - 562

- Total number of people who have been in space (FAI definition) - 556

- Total number of people who have been in earth orbit – 553

- Longest single duration in space - Valeri Polyakov - 437.749 days

- Longest total duration spent in space - Gennadi Padalka - 878.478 days

- Most trips into space - Franklin Chang-Diaz, Jerry Ross, 7 trips

- Longest spacewalk - Susan Helms, James Voss, 8.93 hours

- Most spacewalks – Anatoliy Solovyov, 16

- Most manned flights by country – USA, 302

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