When I was in grade school, I remember working on a school project asking me to describe what life would be like in space. I had to design a spaceship and show how I would survive. Why do I remember this project so clearly? It was difficult to find any information at that time in the library, as there was very little written in book form on that subject. Fast forward a few (sigh) decades. Chris Hadfield allows us to step behind previously closed doors by writing this educating and entertaining book (An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth) which includes some fascinating insights about daily life on the International Space Station.
Hadfield was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station (ISS). He was certainly worthy of the honor, and he continues to make a real contribution to the space program by educating people worldwide about what can be learned from space. Hadfield did not intend for the book to be an autobiography or memoir, but rather a self-help or guidebook (with worthwhile content that addresses what can be learned from an astronaut’s experiences). The insights can be illustrated through key phrases like: “have an attitude”, “sweat the small stuff”, “celebrate the small victories,” and “aim to be a zero.”
How do you combine raising a family with being an astronaut? When Hadfield was chosen as an astronaut his family was forced to relocate to Houston. Frequent moves are part of an astronaut’s life. Hadfield even spent 2001 in Russia as Director of Operations for NASA, where they lived in a Russian apartment building and were encouraged to speak the language. Hadfield and his wife Helene have three children, all of whom had to adjust to having a passionate, focused, regimented and frequently absent dad. Hadfield hoped that during his time as commander of the ISS he could facilitate some public outreach, and expand the world’s appreciation and knowledge of the space program. Hadfield’s son Evan encouraged him to post pictures on Twitter, and he coached his dad on new ways to bring attention to the space program. The photos taken on the ISS definitely marketed the beauty and wonder of space. Evan wanted him to make the first music video in space, singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity with different words (you have to watch this clip!). The end result was huge media exposure and people hailing him as a photographer, poet, singer, and a celebrity.
Being an astronaut is about preparing. At NASA, everyone’s a critic, so you need to view criticism as potentially helpful advice. Astronauts prepare for all possible failures in sim and train how to handle the problems. They acknowledge their failures and use these to achieve future successes. The sim itself may be wrong, so astronauts need to also rely on their skills and how to problem-solve. This contravenes the common wisdom that you visualize victory, because if you focus on the negative, you invite bad things to happen. Chris maintains that “anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.” For example, if he gets into a crowded elevator, he would plan for what he would do if they get stuck. Hadfield believes in the power of negative thinking.
Astronauts have to sweat the small stuff, or they are dead astronauts. Early in his career, Hadfield realized that if he hoped to be selected by Canada to be an astronaut, he needed to be a great fighter jet pilot. Then he almost failed an instrument exam flight. When his flight instructor luckily chalked it up to a bad day, Hadfield’s response was to be more prepared. He would study the airplane he might fly the next day, visualize his flight, map out his route, and drive where he would be flying. On average, new astronauts are 34 years old. Wanting the job drives their choices, and the odds of being selected now are slimmer than ever. Clearly, the people that apply are highly competitive. Those that are selected can no longer rely on their natural skill, as the volume of complex information and skills to be mastered is simply too great to be able to figure it out on the fly. On the International Space Station a wide variety of specializations are required, as you are in space for a longer period of time. You need to be able to get along with others and have some redundancy in skills (essentially be over-qualified). Now hyper-competitive people have to learn to cooperate and help each other shine.
It costs a huge amount of money to train an astronaut. Many never actually make it to space (only slightly more than 500 people have had the opportunity to see our planet from afar). Launches are regularly delayed. NASA’s medical exams are strict. After the Challenger and Columbia disasters many astronauts wondered if their dreams would ever be realized. Hadfield’s mission is to make sure that people all over the world see the benefits of space travel.
I felt like I was traveling with Hadfield as he described the adventure of his first space walk in 2001…he accomplishes this by the use of a series of analogies. It is clear to the reader that every mission is dangerous. On his first space walk, water droplets formed inside his helmet, causing his eyes to sting and precipitating a form of blindness which threatened his mission and potentially his health. Hadfield mentions many dramatic moments throughout the book, and weaves tales of colleagues he has lost while a fighter pilot and as an astronaut. The after-effects of space flight, while not completely surprising, would be enough to discourage the average person from wanting to live in space. Hadfield explains how space takes a toll on blood vessels, the cardiovascular system, bones, muscles, and eyesight. Most of the damage can be reversed with dedicated rehabilitation.
Part 2 of the book is more linear, as Chris tells his experience before and after the launch on his last space flight. It is in this section of the book that we learn fascinating “insider” details about life is space. This is a must-read. I was fascinated by his descriptions of the types of his sleep station (where no mattress or pillow are required), science experiments they conducted, what astronauts eat, how to play a guitar in the weightlessness of space, communication opportunities from space, and even the complexities of collecting a urine sample. Hadfield made brief videos of the only-in-space aspects of everyday life, which the Canadian Space Agency posted on its website as well as on YouTube. Educational outreach is one of Hadfield’s passions.
Hadfield has now retired from NASA and is looking forward to all the exciting new challenges that lay ahead. We should be honored that Hadfield and his wife chose to move back to Canada. It is great to have Canada associated with someone so inspirational and respected. Retirement is not a step-down. Going to space has enriched his life on earth, not made it more mundane and unappealing. He will take pleasure in small victories and accomplishments (as we should). He does not define success as limited to peak, high-visibility experiences. Hadfield enjoyed being a test pilot and celebrated his everyday accomplishments as he helped to make flying safer for future generations. Of course, Chris Hadfield had many high profile experiences as he was part of a team that flew the Shuttle 135 times and used it to put the Hubble telescope into orbit, and he helped to build part of Mir and the ISS. He will be remembered as the first Commander of the International Space Station and a Canadian hero…and a good storyteller too!