The Final Frontier of Telemarketing

Chris Hadfield is probably the most publicly accessible astronaut in recent memory. During his five-month residency aboard the International Space Station from December 2012 to May 2013, Hadfield graced the curious among us with videos giving a look into his space kitchen, tweets from his view of Earth, and even a reddit AMA. A Forbes contributor once called him “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth.” It’s fair to say that more so than most to go to space, Hadfield was more accessible to those of us back on Earth than others. 

Unless you were his wife. 

(But it wasn’t his fault.)

Right now, chances are you’re no more than a few feet away from your cell phone; in our modern world, that’s a new given. Like most other aspects of being in a tin can orbiting the planet, that’s not quite true if you’re aboard the International Space Station. You don’t go up there with your mobile phone or, for that matter, any other phone — at least not in the traditional sense. After all, there are no telephone poles or cellular towers up there. But if astronauts like Hadfield can tweet from space, certainly, they can make a telephone call. In 2013, NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings explained the process to

Yes, they actually have an IP phone, which works functionally through a computer. It’s kind of like ‘Space Skype’. They can call any phone in the world if they have the right satellite coverage. That helps them stay in connection with their families and their friends as well as the people they work with.

Pretty cool and very convenient, but it comes with two major drawbacks. First, while ISS residents can make calls this way, you can’t call them — the system is for outgoing calls only. And second, there’s a bit of a delay between orbit and terra firma. As the signal needs to travel tens of thousands of miles, according to NASA, “there is a time lag of up to 1 second in conversations” — and that’s per direction, and assuming no pauses. If you’re trying to talk with someone in space, you need to be more patient than you normally would be.

And in Hadfield’s case, that caused a weird moment of marital strife. In an interview of sorts with Wired magazine (on YouTube, here), Hadfield shared his experiences with communicating with loved ones back home — and shared the strange problem caused by that slight delay. 

So when I phoned my wife from the Space Station, it would go through all of those links and then get through the [NASA’s Johnson Space Station in Houston] telephone system and [then] it would ring on her phone. But the delay was so long that she’d pick it up and she’d go, “Hello?” and I’d go “Hello!” but by the time she said “hello” and it got to me and I said “hello” back to her, it might be three seconds. And she always thought it was a sales call — and she’d hang up on me.

That’s not good. And as the ISS can’t receiving incoming phone calls, she couldn’t even call back.

NASA came up with a solution, though. Per Hadfield, his wife “got the numbers from NASA” so that when he called, “her phone would say ‘Space.'” When Space called, she’d wait for her husband-astronaut to answer. And the two were able to connect regularly for the remainder of his time floating in the skies above.

Bonus fact: While the “phone” aboard the ISS doesn’t take incoming calls in the traditional way, there’s still a way for unaffiliated people back here on Earth to speak to those orbiting above. With a lot of planning and a good deal of radio equipment and knowledge, you can beam your voice up to the skies above, reaching the astronauts aboard the ISS. In 2015, a radio operator named Adrian Lane pulled off the stunt. As Business Insider reported, “after learning that the path of the ISS would intersect with his home on Earth, Lane apparently spent weeks planning the perfect moment to make his move and call up outer space, and much to his (and everyone’s) delight, he succeeded in speaking to the astronauts aboard the craft for a solid 50 seconds.” (If you want to give it a try yourself, here’s a good place to start.)

From the Archives: Tearing Up: What happens if you cry in space? Not much! Chris Hadfield explains.