April 6, 2020

Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

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By now, you’ve seen the video.

Last year, astronaut Chris Hadfield’s cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity went viral on YouTube. This capped a hugely successful stint for Hadfield aboard the International Space Station for the Canadian Space Agency astronaut, and a great ad hoc publicity campaign via social media.

But there’s more to the man than the music and the videos. In this week’s review, we’re taking a look at An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. And although An Astronaut’s Guide is partly autobiographical, it’s also much more. Part philosophy slash self-help book, Hadfield also takes us behind the scenes of astronaut candidate selection and what it takes to “think like an astronaut.”

So, what is “The Right Stuff?” Hadfield illustrates the combination of hard-work, soul searching and, yes, even the occasional stroke of luck – he was very nearly check-rided on a flight once as a trainee pilot, a certain career ender – that marked his career. It takes a curious psychological mix to be an astronaut, requiring both a Type A go-getter personality as well as and someone who can give up control to others while they’re placed on top on millions of tons of explosives at the same time.  NASA and the CSA are also very smart in vetting astronaut candidates, often sometimes shrewdly interviewing folks that the astronauts have come in contact with such as the hotel desk clerk or nurses during physical exams to see what the individual might truly be like as a person.

An Astronaut’s Guide gives us a fascinating look at this selection process, as well as a look at everyday life aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield truly excels at this sort of PR outreach, shedding new light on eating, living and working in space. Being prepared for the worst is the astronaut’s credo, as Hadfield devotes an entire chapter of the book to watching out for “what could kill me next?”

The author also points out the subtle differences to life on the station versus earlier missions. A veteran of several shuttle flights, Hadfield notes that the right psychological mix is crucial during long term expeditions aboard the International Space Station. Who cleans the filters or collects the trash among a crew of six PhDs? The author mentions that many astronaut candidates are people that have been wildly successful their entire lives and many find first time failure hard to accept. Then there’s the phenomenon of going from being a whiz kid to joining a group where everyone is brilliant and accomplished, where one has to finally take on a bit of homework.

Hadfield also brings the impact of an astronaut’s career versus family life to the fore. Much of this parallels military life, or any career that vies with one’s family for dominance.  Hadfield admits the sacrifices that his wife has made for his dream, as well as how his kids dealt with being “the astronaut’s kid”.

Hadfield also makes a good point on humility in the book, as well as always looking forward. Any astronaut gets rotated through the pipeline towards an upcoming mission and, ultimately, finds themselves back at the bottom in a supporting role once again.

Be sure to read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, and always be ready to play Rocket Man – or perhaps Space Oddity – when called upon to do so!

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