An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Length: 304 pages
When Chris Hadfield was commander of the International Space Station, he managed to bring back that childhood fascination of space that some people forget as they grow older. He was the first astronaut to really make use of social media to show the amazing sights of space travel – he took beautiful photos of the earth from orbit, he made HD videos to show the trials and wonders of living with no gravity, he held live Q&A sessions with elementary schools (it would have blown my mind as a kid, and still would, to video conference live with someone in space), and he raised general awareness of the space program with entertaining music videos and media interviews. This is all in addition to his main work on the station.
He’s particularly inspiring for us Canadians, as he was not only the first Canadian commander of the station on his last expedition, but was also previously the first Canadian to ever do a spacewalk, during which he installed the Canadarm2. To see him capture the attention of so many people around the world and promote space exploration felt really special. I don’t get patriotic very often, but he brought a little of that out.
This is an autobiography with a self-help slant. He worked his whole life towards being an astronaut and uses this to look back at what he learned along the way. I approach any self-help book with a bit of reluctance, but if you’re going to take life advice from someone, take it from someone who has needed to work hard his entire life to essentially keep from dying on the job. I found his advice and examples of how he keeps motivated and learning really interesting, and the stories from his own life and work provide great examples of the advice in action. They become much more than just catchy phrases for a Tumblr image this way.
If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time.
His life goal was to be an astronaut, but it was surprisingly far-fetched when he decided this as a kid. Canada didn’t have a space program, and Canadians were not eligible to become astronauts in the US. He decided to aim for the American qualifications, in the hopes that a Canadian program would be created. Thankfully it was in 1990. Once accepted, there was still a high likelihood that he wouldn’t even make it to space. A change in government funding, bad timing, or even a common cold can keep you grounded. It drives home the idea that the end goal, which in his career was floating in space, can’t be what you use to measure success. He made a point to acknowledging the small victories along the way.
In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board, and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death. In the Soyuz, for example, we use every cue from every available source—periscope, multiple sensors, the horizon—to monitor our attitude constantly and adjust if necessary. We never want to lose attitude, since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.
In my experience, something similar is true on Earth. Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal.
Hadfield was a test pilot before joining the CSA, which is a very exciting and interesting profession in itself, so the book is full of great stories – losing consciousness while piloting a fighter jet, finding a bee under his visor while flying in formation, and losing his sight while on a spacewalk to name a few. I also don’t know if there’s many people in the world who can explain how the American Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz feel different on take off.
I’m really glad I picked this up. I had a chance to get it signed on his book tour, but the wait was five hours, so I bailed. I was briefly disappointed when I was reading this that I didn’t stay, but five hours is a long wait to shake someone’s hand and mumble an incoherent compliment. It was a space hand, though, so maybe I’ll catch him on his next tour.