Jeffrey Hoffman may not be a household name like Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, but his status as a NASA astronaut is still often met with awestruck faces, a status that enables him to promote space research:
“Being an astronaut is a rather unique profession, so when I tell people that I’m an astronaut, it’s still something special, but as Jeffrey Hoffman, I’m not a personal celebrity and that’s all to the good.
“I don’t particularly care to be bothered when I go down the street, but on the other hand, I’m very happy that people tend to be excited at the idea of space flight and are interested in what I’ve done as an astronaut. It shows that the space program is supported by the public, because if the public loses interest, ultimately, that’s to the detriment of future space exploration.”
Having clocked over 1, 200 hours in space, Professor Hoffman has many memories of life inside the Space Shuttle. In the 5 space flights he took part in, he had to carry out various repairs and tasks, but also got to enjoy the unique feeling of weightlessness.
“We stay pretty busy in space. Every flight I’ve gone up we’ve been working very hard. We’ve had many planned tasks which we train hard for and on most of the flights things have gone wrong that we have to use our training for: problems to solve, things to fix. So I never had any trouble occupying myself.
“You don’t really have a chance to get lonely either. Every flight that I’ve made on the Space Shuttle has had a crew of 7 and it’s very tight quarters up there; it’s like having 7 people in a small tent on a camping expedition.”
Astronauts typically live on a diet of rehydrated foods when they are on a space flight, but the meals are getting better all the time. Professor Hoffman remembers fondly his favourite foods when he was in the Space Shuttle, but the meals contemporary astronauts can enjoy today seem to be out of this world.
“All of us had some favourite foods. I particularly liked the dehydrated shrimp cocktail; I’d have one of those with every meal. And the food is getting much better; the military developed these MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) which are actually not dehydrated, so the quality of food available to the astronauts is better than it used to be. In fact, now in the International Space Station, there have even been 3-star chefs from some of the great Parisian restaurants providing food for the astronauts. I never got to have that, but they tell me it’s pretty good.”
Space exploration and life out there in the great beyond have always captured the human imagination. Hoffman also offered his thoughts on the ever burgeoning number of sci-fi movies and mentioned his favourite films about space.
“Far and away I think the best science fiction movie is still 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a very visionary glimpse into a potential future of humanity. I also love Alien, particularly the first Alien movie; it was really well done, both in terms of the scariness and the space flight aspects. They did a very nice job and I still, every once in a while, look at it again and enjoy it.”
Stanley Kubrick’s and Ridley Scott’s Alien offer unique takes on life in outer space, but Professor Hoffman has his own opinions about the future of space exploration and beliefs about alien life forms.
“Do I believe that there’s life somewhere else in the Universe? Yes I do. That doesn’t mean that we’ve been visited by green men in flying saucers, but modern astronomy has shown us how huge the Universe is.
“One of the most exciting things over the last 15 years or so has been the discovery of planets around other stars and in 2009 we’ve found that there are over 400 of those. And these are around stars that are relatively close to the sun and when you look at how many stars there are in the rest of our galaxy and how many galaxies there are in our Universe and we know that the laws of physics and chemistry seem to be the same all over the Universe, it’s almost inconceivable that there isn’t life somewhere out there.
“But that’s a belief, and I’m a scientist. I want evidence and as of now we have no evidence that there is any life elsewhere in the Universe. I think one of the most exciting tasks for astronomy over the next several decades will be to continue the search for planets, hopefully to find Earth-like planets and maybe find indications that there is life. It is possible to detect it, but we haven’t yet.”