Trip of a lifetime for Canadian space oddity

I have a particular love of books written by astronauts and so was delighted that I got the chance to review Chris Hadfield’s memoir recently:

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on EarthAnAstronautsGuideToLifeOnEarth
Chris Hadfield
Macmillan, £18.99
Review: Val Nolan

Chris Hadfield would make anyone feel inadequate. An aeronautical engineer, a top graduate of the US Air Force Test Pilot School, former US Navy test pilot of the year, former Chief of Robotics at the Johnson Space Centre, former commander of the International Space Station and, essentially, a rock star, with his zero-gravity version of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ receiving millions of views online. Oh, and he also speaks Russian.

But, says Hadfield, “I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut. I had to turn myself into one”. It is a transformation he describes with great humour and modesty, the story of how the 1969 moon landing inspired a nine-year-old in rural Ontario to overcome his fear of heights — let alone the fact that Canada didn’t have a space programme until the 1990s — and become the man responsible for success and safety aboard the “world’s spaceship”.

Responsible too for one of the most successful campaigns of scientific awareness in recent decades. Hadfield’s tweets from orbit placed the universe on our phones and laptop screens but they were no mere publicity stunt. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth contextualises them as a powerful tool in the author’s educational arsenal, a means of exciting people, particularly young people, about space again.

Of course, what stands out most about Hadfield’s hugely engaging book is his acknowledgment that he could not have succeeded alone. Hadfield is as appreciative of his wife, family (“Space Oddity” was his son’s idea), and “loyal, courageous, and brave” colleagues as he is quietly damning about those few out only for themselves. “Leadership is not about glorious crowning acts,” he says. “It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it”.

He learnt this as a fighter jock intercepting Soviet aircraft which strayed into Canadian territory (“not a low-stress occupation”) and, later, as a test pilot pushing F-18s beyond their design limits while earning his master’s degree by night. When the new Canadian Space Agency opened its doors to “highly informed, consenting human guinea pigs” in 1992 he was selected out of more than 5,000 applicants.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is thus propelled by its author’s joy at actually getting to live his impossible dream. Hadfield’s enthusiasm is such that his writing often verges on the poetic, but this is also a pragmatic volume in which he is candid about the risks involved in his profession. Yes he may romanticise a rocket “lit up and shining, an obelisk”, but he is still able to see it as “a 4.5 megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it”. Hadfield’s experiences on the Space Station are similarly exemplified by contradiction: people “sleep on air” but have no running water; their hearts shrink physically but grow in their fondness for the Earth and its inhabitants. Hadfield, by eschewing technical detail, foregrounds the “human aspect of space exploration” and his book is all the more wonderful because of it.

Indeed, forget for a moment that this is the memoir of an astronaut. Instead see it as the work of someone who has learnt “to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter”. In such a light this book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to accomplish their goals. “Sweat the small stuff without letting anyone see you sweat,” he says. Stellar advice for life on Earth and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 22nd February 2014.

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