When I was a kid I had no dreams of being an astronaut but space shuttle launches were certainly headline news. On a couple of occasions liftoff was watched on TV in the gym during school hours. It was as if all of North America tuned in for each launch, patiently viewing each one as another small step toward an inevitable return to the moon and beyond. The Challenger explosion is like the JFK assassination for my generation and I still recall vividly the non-bussed kids returning from lunch and telling the rest of us that the space shuttle had blown up.
By the time Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, a still newsworthy tragedy, I’d wager a lot fewer people even knew the space shuttle was in orbit at the time. And while the International Space Station (ISS) and the Hubble space telescope manage to attract attention once in a while, the fame and name recognition of astronauts had dwindled to near non-existence.
A Mustachioed Canadian Doing Bowie Covers?
That all changed, if only for a fleeting moment, when a perky, mustachioed Canadian took command of the ISS and recorded an acoustic version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the station. This video would become a sensation on Youtube and thrust that astronaut, Chris Hadfield, into the global spotlight giving NASA, and the entire space program, a much needed jolt of relevance and celebrity.
Chris has since parlayed his heightened profile into an ongoing and exhaustive effort to raise the profile of human space exploration. If his Twitter account is a worthy measure, he does almost non-stop public appearances promoting everything space. He is a man of extreme passion for his life’s work and his book, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, is yet another avenue of his continued dedication to the cause.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t buy this book or borrow it from the library. It was given to me as a Christmas gift. I was rather unmoved by the gift as I really had little interest in it and likely wouldn’t have made any attempt to get it or read it. But a gift is a gift and I felt obliged to read it since someone close to me had made the effort to not only buy it for me but had it signed by Chris as well. Finally this spring I sat down and read it over the course of a week.
An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth is part memoir, part motivational manifesto, and part CSA/NASA recruitment presentation. Very quickly two facts about Chris become abundantly clear; he is an exceptionally positive person and he is an exceptionally intelligent person. That is to be expected, I suppose. He is an astronaut, after all, and that isn’t exactly a two year diploma offered at your local community college.
Positivity is all the rage right now as anyone who’s active on Facebook can attest. The plethora of motivational quotes and blurbs shared there is bordering on ridiculous but I suppose it’s a natural rebuttal to the venomous trolling all over the internet. Perhaps I’m too cynical but all this positivity wears thin quickly both online and in this book. I appreciate that it has a place and in a career as difficult as astronaut it probably is essential to survive. That being said, positivity alone will not make you an astronaut or much of anything else in life. It’s true. Yes, being positive helps but the book sometimes tends to gloss over all the other attributes necessary for success. Positivity may grease the wheels a bit but it’s not a panacea.
Positivity Is Nice, But Brilliance Is Better
Similarly, Chris tends to overplay the humility card and thereby glosses over the fact that his career as an astronaut was very much predicated on the fact that he is an incredibly brilliant human being. The first clue to this reality occurs after he shares the inspiring story about watching the Apollo moon landing at the family cottage then going outside, staring at the sky, and making a pledge to become an astronaut himself. A great story for sure but a few paragraphs later he mentions that he was in a school for gifted kids. He was already not your average kid and was well on his way to success regardless of what profession he chose. Yes, his dedication to his dream is admirable and in some cases astounding. My point is that Chris Hadfield was a very unique and rare human being right from the start. He was blessed with a mental and physical prowess that only a very infinitesimal percentage of the species have.
I realize this all makes me sound like quite the fuddy-duddy, a bit jealous perhaps, maybe even a jerk. I suppose I am envious, I won’t deny that. Chris’ skills and focus are admirable and I wish I’d had half of what he has but I do feel its worthy criticizing a little bit because the way it’s all presented in the book, in my humble opinion, diminished the overall message he was trying to present.
In its simplest form that message is “don’t be a dick”. That’s a great message and, simple though it may be, it’s one that sadly needs a great deal of repeating these days. But a simple message can easily be eye-rolled at if the preacher overplays his hand and doesn’t give enough weight to the other advantages he had that also, if not more so, led to his success. In fact, of the many examples laid out in the book where not being a dick led to future progress in Chris’ career every one of them seemed to involve another astronaut just as successful or often more successful who was a complete asshole. A prime example of this contradiction was the analogy used to support the +1/0/-1 philosophy. Again this is a simple but noble life lesson that promotes politeness, self-sacrifice, and cooperation where by helping others succeed you will help yourself. It’s Sesame Street for grown-ups. Unfortunately, the sample co-worker used to represent the bad -1 side of the equation was described as a high ranking astronaut despite acting like an asshole to subordinates. What then was the message? It seems success comes whether you’re nice or not as most of us who have jobs already knew. In the field of space exploration it is brains, brawn, health, and nerve that trump all other considerations no matter how hard Chris tries to suggest otherwise.
ISS Is Not An Island Of Peace And Cooperation
It is also somewhat ironic that throughout a book focusing on the value of co-operation and teamwork, we are made aware of the politically divided nature of the ISS. I had assumed the ISS was a fully co-operative effort with multiple nations putting aside history and conflict to work together toward a single, human goal of science and space exploration. As far as I know, this is how the whole project has been presented to the peoples of Earth. But An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth exposes a somewhat shocking and certainly deflating truth about the ISS. That being that there is an American side and a Russian side. Once in space, astronauts and cosmonauts politely invite each other to spend time in the other’s quarters for meals and recreation but the divide is there nonetheless. Furthermore, Americans (and Canadians, Europeans, Japanese) are not allowed to load or command the Russian Soyuz rockets. This reality just shattered a naïve view of the entire ISS mission as well as weakening Chris’ philosophy.
As you can see, the message was a little too trite for me and was ultimately lost in my cynicism. Other readers will no doubt see it differently and will be quite inspired by the message in this book. In fact, I have one friend who has said essentially that. I have no reason to doubt Chris’ sincerity and he genuinely appears to walk his own talk. He’s no fraud and for that he can be applauded.
Now, despite all my grumbling above, I did find a good chunk of this book enjoyable and valuable so let me try to get a little more positive myself. One thing An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth does brilliantly is describe in detailed but accessible terms the reality of a career astronaut. The path Chris followed to achieve his life’s dream is unbelievably daunting. For all the grandeur and achievement of actually getting to space, there are years upon years of constant, hard physical and mental work with no guarantee of success. It’s like taking a constant degree in the most difficult subjects imaginable all simultaneously while also preparing for the Olympics. And after a decade or more of this a simple infection or fluke health problem could derail your chance of getting to space.
This definitely kills the romanticism of the space industry and while that may not help the recruitment process, I found it fascinating reading. You really appreciate, even if enviously, the effort these men and women put into their careers not to mention the sacrifice. The same can be said for their families who are just as much a part of this adventure as the astronauts. The book truly excels here and for that alone it was well worth the read. For those kids who dream of a life in the stars thanks to Star Trek or Star Wars, this is a fascinating but sobering look into the reality of what these men and women do for a living. It’s a unique job with almost unimaginable potential but the vast majority of their time is spent working and learning within the comparatively dull confines of earth. The payoff, even if remote, is a pinnacle unmatched in human experience but the path to that summit is borderline insane.
As Space X and Virgin Galactic, and many others, trudge closer to civilian space flight the realities revealed in this book highlight the monumental challenges that remain for humans to truly master space travel as anything other than a specialized, research focused endeavour. Space colonies seem all but impossible after reading this book. We’ll get there eventually but it won’t be much like science fiction has portrayed it.
A Remarkable Man Who Will Inspire The Next Generation Of Space Explorers
Chris is a remarkable person. He’s as high achieving as a human can be yet manages to come across genuine and humble. The entire book is a testament to just how exceptional astronauts are and by extension how exceptional Chris Hadfield is. I’d recommend reading this book if you’re interested in space science. I’ll have my young kids read it just for them to see what humans can accomplish with persistent dedication to a goal. I’m terribly unfocused, much to my frustration, and this book and this man offer a significant counterpoint to the example I portray for them daily. The kids can benefit from that while also being amazed by the concept of the space program. We may not have a lunar landing to inspire them like Chris was inspired in 1969 but the frontiers that will be challenged in my children’s lifetime will be even more incredible. If anyone can inspire them towards being a part of this, it is Chris Hadfield.
The book is well written and not cluttered with science jargon. It’s very human and accessible. Chris manages to relay the realities of his 21 year career without bogging it down in dull details even if some of the reality is, well, dull. He answers some interesting questions that laypersons would love to ask and overall it’s an enjoyable read. The life philosophy parts, however, fall a little flat with me. Some might be moved by that but I wasn’t. Much of it was just too common sense for me or perhaps I was raised that way already and so this struck me as preaching to the choir. Don’t be a jerk seems a simple enough message; hardly a philosophy that needed to be revealed by an astronaut. Otherwise, the book is worth the time to read. And for Canadians there’s the added bonus of a little national pride. I’ll give it 3 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5.