Space Oddity: A Review of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything by Chris Hadfield

Posted: December 28, 2013 in Books, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Science, Space
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Note to Canadian readers: the subtitle “What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything” is not included in domestic versions of the book.

It’s only appropriate that my year of memoirs will end with this excellent volume from arguably the most famous astronaut in years, Canada’s Colonel Chris Hadfield. His series of videos shot while Commander of the Expedition 35 mission on the International Space Station (ISS), culminating in his release of a modified version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity filmed throughout the station, made him something of a celebrity and gave him international fame. While his resume is impressive (test pilot, Top Gun winner, astronaut, ISS Commander), he never comes across as cocky; self-assured, yes, but that’s really a necessary component for the sorts of jobs he’s had. Being the last book I’ll likely finish in 2013, it was nice that it was also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Here’s his Space Oddity video:

It was put together back on Earth by Hadfield’s son, and it received three million hits in it’s first few days online. I’ll link at the bottom to Hadfield’s YouTube channel as well, in case you’re interested in more of his videos.

Hadfield’s approach is to give us examples of things he has experienced, of challenges he has faced, and then to share with the reader the lessons he learned from these experiences. While most memoirs tend to tell the story with anecdotal asides, this one actually attempts to teach. This approach verges on the pedantic at times, but never quite crosses that threshold. I think this is largely due to one of his primary philosophies: aim for zero. Hadfield states that there are three types of people in life: minus ones, who are actively damaging; plus ones, who stand out and solve problems; and zeroes, who are quietly competent. He suggests that aiming for zero has several benefits. First, you’re not aggravating the situation or making it worse, as would a minus one. Second, striving to be a plus one often makes you a minus one in the eyes of others around you – no one likes a show-off. Third, if you’re quietly competent and get the job done, others can decide for you if you’re a plus one or not.

Hadfield first decided he wanted to be an astronaut when he was nine-years-old. To be fair, this isn’t an unusual dream occupation for young children, especially those growing up at the height of the space race (he was born in 1959). The difference between Hadfield (as well as those few others who become astronauts) and the rest of us dreamers, is that he actively pursued hobbies and educational opportunities that would lead him in that direction. Realizing that most astronauts were taken from the test pilot ranks, he joined the Air Cadets early on, and got his pilot’s licence. It didn’t phase him that Canada did not have an astronaut program as yet – he just knew he had to prepare in case the eventuality arose. He entered the Canadian Armed Forces, and became a fighter pilot, itself no mean achievement considering how much competition there is for very few positions in a military as small as Canada’s.

Thanks to NORAD agreements, Hadfield did get a chance to work with his American counterparts, eventually taking part in Top Gun – and winning – as well as getting the opportunity to go to test pilot school. In the second round of astronaut recruitment held by the CSA (Canadian Space Agency), all of his hard work paid off – he was selected to join the astronaut corps. He ended up doing two Shuttle missions prior to his assignment to the ISS, the first to MIR and the second to install the Canadarm2 on the nascent Space Station. His third mission was his finest moment as an astronaut, including a record number of science experiments on the station, as well as helping to coordinate an emergency spacewalk to deal with an ammonia coolant leak on the exterior just two days before he was due to come home.

The space travel aspects of the memoir are fascinating. I grew up during the rocket age (I was born in 1969, about a month after the first Lunar Landing), and I’ve always been interested in anything to do with space and our exploration of it. Hadfield goes into detail on what the flights themselves are like: the forces experienced by the body both on take-off and landing, and the differences between the two systems he has been launched into space on (the Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz). His descriptions of the lengthy recovery the body undergoes after a long visit to space are especially interesting. The science being gained through, as Hadfield puts it, these “willing guinea pigs,” is invaluable if our dreams of one day sending humans to Mars and beyond are to come true.

Hadfield had to fight against adversity most of the way along his path to becoming ISS Commander, and here lies perhaps his most useful lessons for those of us who are not likely to become astronauts anytime soon. For starters, being Canadian reduced his chances of becoming an astronaut considerably – Canada has only certified a total of twelve astronauts since recruitment began in 1983. Even after he was certified, there were no guarantees he’d get flights, and when he did, no guarantees how many. His last stint, the half year aboard the ISS, was nearly derailed when he had some problems with abdominal lesions (an after affect of an earlier appendectomy). He did everything he could to be prepared for any eventuality, and his preparation paid off.

This is the advice he gives to his readers: while life rarely turns out the way we want or hope it will, if you prepare yourself for any eventuality, you will be able to cope with the curve-balls. This applies to astronauts, but it also applies to everyone else. We can sit around all day worrying about what might happen, or lamenting what might have been; or we can go out there and do. Hadfield is definitely a doer – I’m sure he’ll be a great success at whatever life throws at him now that he’s retired from the astronaut corps.

Steve’s Grade: A
An fascinating memoir that not only gives the reader the sense of what spaceflight feels like, but gives valuable advice that can be applied to anyone’s life.

Chris Hadfield’s YouTube Channel
Chris Hadfield’s Website
Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube Channel (tons more Hadfield videos here)

Buy the book:

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